The Oregonian: Changes to mandatory sentences get positive review from Portland crowd
Author: Christian Gaston, The Oregonian
Posted: March 13, 2013

Read the original story here in The Oregonian.

Oregon lawmakers are mulling a plan that could save $600 million in prison costs over the next decade.

Already the proposal -- which would include changes to mandatory minimum sentencing under Measure 11, passed by voters in 1994 -- has drawn criticism from district attorneys.

But at a public forum in Portland Tuesday night, where about 200 audience members got to weigh in on the proposals via an electronic “clicker” system, a wide majority supported even the most controversial changes.

“It seemed to be a very reform-minded crowd,” said David Rogers, executive director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice and a supporter of the reforms.

That’s good news for Gov. John Kitzhaber and budget writers in Salem, who have built their financial plans for the state banking on at least some of the proposals drafted by the Oregon Commission on Public Safety last year passing muster in the Legislature.

But the most broad package of reforms, House Bill 3194, would affect sentencing rules established by Measures 11 and 57. That means passing it will take broad bipartisan support.

Rep. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, is a co-chair of the Joint Committee on Public Safety, and sat on the commission last year. He admits changing rules in Salem adopted by voters statewide will be difficult.

“It’s definitely true that anything passed by the voters take on an aura here of “don’t touch this,”” Garrett said.

Garrett joined four other commission members at a Portland State University town hall sponsored by The Oregonian and moderated by Peter Bhatia, the paper’s editor. The panel laid out the options considered by the commission last year and how they arrived at the proposals that became House Bill 3194.

On the panel with Garrett was Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, a vocal critic of commission recommendations that would roll back or remove mandatory sentences under Measure 11 for first-degree sex abuse, second-degree robbery and second-degree assault.

“You’re going to hear that I’m the only one who says these things but they’re facts. They’re all facts,” Foote said. “Violent crime is down 50 percent since Measure 11 passed.”

Foote authored an alternative report that pared back the full menu of reforms, leaving out reductions to sentences adopted by Measures 11 and 57. House Bill 3195 reflects Foote’s preferred alternative.

Now Garrett’s joint committee needs to find consensus and move a piece of legislation that will pass the House and Senate with a supermajority.

The 200 participants of a flash polling exercise at the forum indicated the more than 90 percent supported the most ambitious of commission goals. The survey was anything but scientific, but did seem to accurately capture the mood in the room.

Deyalo Bennette, a 21-year-old student at Portland State, said the commission members were ignoring the overall scope of the country's prison system.

“Here in America we have the largest prison population in the whole world,” Bennette said. “Twenty-five percent of the world’s prison population is here in America.”

The reforms aren’t just about saving money. They would also return savings to local community-based programs such as drug courts that work to reduce recidivism.

Paul De Muniz, former chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court, led the commission last year. He said in order to find money to invest in those programs, the state needed to radically change the trajectory of its prison population, expected to grow by 2,300 inmates in ten years.

“We have to bend the cost curve in a way that permits us to reinvest in victims,” De Muniz said.