Setting the crime record straight

There have been more responses to the Oregonian crime article last Month. Crime Victims United had this letter below featured in teh Oregonian, and also re-sent to us. It is an excellent essay by Howard Rodstein of Crime Victim’s United:

A front-page article in The Oregonian about Measure 11, prisons and state spending (“Prison costs shackling Oregon,” April 22) said the state will soon spend more tax money to lock up prison inmates than it does to educate community college and university students. But that’s true only if you count solely state income tax money. Counting both state and federal tax money, the governor’s 2007-09 budget calls for spending more than $2.5 billion for community colleges and universities compared with $1.1 billion for prisons.

The cost of Measure 11 in the current budget is $223 million. This represents just $31 per Oregonian per year and pales into insignificance compared to the virtual crime tax extracted from Oregonians by criminals each year.

Nowhere did the article provide the historical context that led to Measure 11. From 1960 to 1985, Oregon’s violent crime rate increased by almost 700 percent. During that period, Oregon built only one new prison — with 400 beds. Voters passed Measure 11 by a two-thirds majority in 1994. It set mandatory minimum sentences for armed robbers, kidnappers, child molesters, forcible rapists, drunken drivers who maim and kill, murderers and other violent criminals. In 2000, voters rejected an attempt to repeal the measure, by a nearly three-quarters majority.

From 1995, when Measure 11 took effect, until 2002, Oregon’s violent crime rate dropped each year, for a total decrease of 44 percent. During that period, Oregon led all states in lowering its violent crime rate. Supporters of Measure 11 don’t claim that it was solely responsible for the decrease, but do believe it had a substantial impact.

Those who think prison spending has sucked the lifeblood from crime prevention, education and health care should ponder this: Since 1994, Oregon has added a multimillion-dollar early childhood wellness program, added a multimillion-dollar juvenile crime prevention program, expanded re-entry programs for convicts, increased Oregon Health Plan enrollment from 250,000 to 400,000, increased the number of students enrolled in state universities by roughly one-third, devoted millions of dollars to the Oregon Cultural Trust and spent millions to seed a biotechnology boom that never boomed.

The article referenced a study that reported $1.03 in savings for every dollar spent on prisons. But it failed to note that the same study suggests that the return on investment for jailing violent criminals may be as high as $4.35 for every dollar spent.

After a decade during which Oregon saw unprecedented prison construction, it still ranks just 34th among states in total incarceration in prisons and jails. According to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, in 2005 only 16 percent of convicted felons were sent to prison, while 84 percent received alternative sanctions, mostly probation. Prison population growth has actually slowed considerably and is projected to end by 2017.

In the article, a New York analyst compares incarceration and violent crime rates in Oregon and New York, but he fails to mention that New York’s violent crime rate is 55 percent higher than Oregon’s and that New York has some of the most draconian drug sentencing laws in the country while Oregon has some of the most lenient.

The article gave the impression that there is no treatment, no education and no opportunity for rehabilitation in Oregon prisons. The Department of Corrections certainly wouldn’t agree with that.

Howard Rodstein is a policy analyst and board member for Crime Victims United of Oregon.