The Oregonian: PSU research shows Oregonians are flexible on doling out justice
Author: Les Zaitz, The Oregonian
Posted: May 3, 2011

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Voters obliged last fall when they were asked again to get tough on crime. 

The vote for Measure 73, to crack down on some sex offenders and drunken drivers, didn't surprise Jody Sundt, associate professor of criminology at Portland State University who researches public attitudes about crime. 

"There is a general sense that crime is always going up and a general sense that courts aren't harsh enough," said Sundt. 

But new research shows Oregonians are flexible about achieving justice. Sundt said nine out of 10 Oregonians surveyed last summer favor options ranging from letting prisoners out early for good behavior to reducing sentences for certain crimes. 

That could be welcome data for legislators, now figuring how to cover $100 million in prison costs for which there is no budget. Legislators say they have two solutions -- cut prison costs or take money from other state services. 

Legislators, district attorneys, defense attorneys and victim advocates are among those looking for ways to contain prison populations or at least slow the growth. Without some change, Oregon's prison population of 14,000 is forecast to grow by 2,000 over the next five years. That will cost millions and could trigger construction of another prison. 

Legislators also are keenly aware of voter initiatives such as Measures 73 but feel pinched to get tough without the money to do so. 

Ballot measures "simply present a problem and a very expensive solution," said state Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. "If a ballot measure asked voters, for instance, if they would prefer to fund schools or prisons at a higher level, I have no doubt that Oregon votes would choose schools." 

State Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, co-chair of the public safety budget subcommittee, said voters are never asked on crime measures what should be cut to pay for more prison cells. 

"It creates the false impression upon voters that they can get tougher and tougher and it's free," Nolan said. 

PSU's research found most of those surveyed believed crime had increased in the past year. In fact, crime rates in Oregon dropped. 

Blame goes to television's police shows and crime news. 

"When you watch the 10 o'clock news, it's crime, crime, crime," said state Rep. Jeff Barker, D-Aloha, a retired police officer who co-chairs the House Judiciary Committee. 

"If that becomes what you see, that becomes part of what you believe" said state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, co-chair of the public safety budget committee. 

Sundt said such perceptions drive voter approval of get-tough measures. "People believe crime is serious and they need to react seriously to it," she said. She said 67 percent of those surveyed oppose closing any prisons to save money. 

But given other options, Oregonians overwhelmingly support something other than long prison terms, Sundt's research found. 

Three-quarters of those surveyed support allowing a convict to earn release by completing treatment. Corrections experts have long maintained that addressing addiction issues can turn around criminals. 

The survey found 73 percent support punishing and treating criminals in the community. 

Sundt said there is a lesson for legislators. 

"What's most important to communicate is that decisions are being made in ways that are still mindful of public safety and upholding offender accountability," Sundt said. 

Legislators are confronting those options in a variety of bills. They report a growing consensus to modify Measure 73 to send repeat drunken drivers to county jail instead of state prison. Negotiators also are considering reducing voter-imposed mandatory sentences for nonviolent crime, reducing the senior citizen prison population, and shifting more inmates back to county jails. 

Marion County District Attorney Walt Beglau, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, said prosecutors are judging whether proposals will save money and preserve the criminal justice system. It's a difficult balance and "there are no good answers. The end game is yet to come," Beglau said. 

"These are hard votes for legislators," said Hood River attorney Rob Raschio, president of theOregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association. 

Legislators agree the measures considered so far don't save significant sums. Stalling harsher punishment for property crimes under Measure 57, passed in 2008, would spare the state only $2 million in the next two-year budget cycle. 

Plugging the budget gap may require more action, Barker said. No one so far is proposing closing another state prison to save large sums, "but that could happen," he said.