Suspending Measure 57: Stop weakening justice system

Please read this excellent opinion featured in The Oregonian and co-written by Catalyst contributor Steve Doell.
by Tom Bergin, Jason Carlile and Steve Doell, guest opinion

In the name of filling a budget gap, the 2009 Oregon Legislature has seriously weakened the criminal justice system. It “suspended” Measure 57 — the voter-approved response to prolific home invasion burglars, identity thieves, auto thieves and illegal drug dealers — until Jan. 1, 2012. The Legislature itself put Measure 57 on the 2008 ballot and promoted it as essential for public safety.

The measure increased “earned time” from 20 percent to 30 percent for a large number of prisoners. It cut in half supervision for prisoners re-entering the community. It effectively cut probation from two years to one. It cut jail time for probation violators from 180 days to 60 — a two-thirds reduction. In short, it weakened nearly every part of the criminal justice system. All of this will damage the credibility of that system in the eyes of criminals, victims and law-abiding citizens.
We suspect that Measure 57 — as passed by the voters — will never return and that 30 percent earned time for inmates will become a permanent fixture. Such changes are the initial steps in a process that will eventually unravel the progress of the last 20 years.

These changes were not necessary to fill the budget gap. There were many proposals on the table to do that without eroding public safety. This year’s legislative debate on criminal justice is part of a decades-long battle between competing visions — between the tough approach that views crime as the result of individual choice, and the soft approach that views crime as the manifestation of societal problems.

Legislators’ responsibility was to address the budget crisis without undermining the credibility of our criminal justice system. Instead they elected to turn the clock back toward the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s when the soft approach led to decades of rising violence. Oregon experienced a 7.9-times increase in violent crime from 1960 to 1985.

Most of the legislators who supported these changes did so out of a concern for the budget, however misguided that was. But the proponents of the soft approach, led by Rep. Chip Shields, had another agenda — to soften the impact of the justice system on criminals and to advance their utopian theory of reducing crime while keeping criminals on the street. They claim that we can replace tough consequences with “proven” treatment programs. They do this under the slogan “Smart on Crime.” But we’ve been there before, and it wasn’t so smart.

Following the dictum “Never let a crisis go to waste,” they used threats of deep budget cuts to all areas of the public safety system to pressure officials into supporting their plan. The threats were a hardball tactic to advance an unpalatable agenda.

If they could have, they’d have weakened the system much more. They wanted 50 percent earned time but got only 30 percent. They tried to undermine Measure 11 and its mandatory minimum sentences for violent criminals and serious sex offenders. Fortunately, responsible voices prevailed.

Shields and his followers are not satisfied and will be back in the next legislative session trying to weaken punishment and accountability. In the end, it’s up to voters to decide which criminal justice approach will prevail. Their message over the last two decades has been loud and clear, but many legislators don’t seem to be listening. Voters understand the first priority of government is to keep their neighborhoods safe. It looks like they may need to send the message again.

Tom Bergin is Clatsop County sheriff. Jason Carlile is Linn County district attorney. Steve Doell is president of Crime Victims United.