Portland State Convenes: Future of criminal justice and public safety in Oregon

Portland State Convenes: The future of criminal justice and public safety in Oregon

March 12, 2013

More than 200 people at a town hall hosted by Portland State University on March 12 strongly backed changes to the Oregon justice system that would give more judges more say in sentencing and shift money from prisons to prevention and treatment programs. 

PSU and The Oregonian sponsored the public forum to discuss proposals in the Oregon Legislature that could alter voter-approved mandatory minimum sentences for crimes such as robbery, assault and sex abuse. 

Peter Bhatia, editor of The Oregonian, moderated a panel of members of the Commission on Public Safety, formed last year by Gov. John Kitzhaber to address the rising costs of the state’s growing prison population.

Rep. Chris Garrett, D-Lake Oswego, said the state could achieve the same or better results at a lower cost by reducing its reliance on prison beds. 

“Our public safety spending in this state is weighed heavily and to an increasing degree to the part of the system that costs far and away the most and only deals with crime after it’s happened — and that’s the prisons,” he said.

The state’s incarceration rate is lower than the national average, but it has been rising steadily while violent and property crime rates have been going down. State spending on corrections has increased by nearly 40 percent since 2001 to a total of $1.4 billion in the 2011-13 biennium.

Voters established minimum sentences for certain crimes with the passage of Measure 11 in 1994, Measure 57 in 2008 and Measure 73 in 2010. 

Clackamas County’s District Attorney John Foote, who disputes some of the commission’s key recommendations in an alternative report, said the problem is being overblown. 

“Our first responsibility in a serious crime is justice, not whether we can change somebody,” Foote said. “And that’s really the core of why we want to protect the sentences we have now, because we think they are pretty low and they’re pretty fair.”

Using remote electronic “clickers” to respond to questions, the audience largely supported the commission’s recommendations to increase community supervision, treatment and rehabilitation programs.

Among the results:

  • 84 percent are dissatisfied with Oregon’s approach to dealing with crime and public safety,
  • 90 percent feel safe in their community,
  • 95 percent support giving judges more say in sentencing,
  • 81 percent think state spends too little on crime prevention and community supervision programs, and
  • 67 percent say community-based treatment programs are the most effective way to reduce recidivism. 

The other panelists were Paul De Muniz, chief justice (ret.) of the Oregon Supreme Court; Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany; and Colette Peters, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections.

PSU Convenes is a series of public events each year spotlighting important issues facing Oregonians.

Go here to read the full Commission report. Go here to read the alternative report. Watch a video of the town hall here.