The state Department of Corrections should recalculate its assumptions about the state’s need for prison space.
Just over two years ago, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state Legislature made dramatic changes to the state’s prison system. Lawmakers cut the sentences for some property crimes and drug crimes. They promised more money to local communities for efforts aimed at cutting recidivism.
And, lo and behold, the number of men and women being sent to Oregon’s prisons dropped: In 2013, according to the Medford Mail Tribune, some 4,972 Oregonians went to prison, a number that fell to 4,784 last year.
But something else happened, as well. While the average sentence served in 2013 was 37.1 months, it’s now some 44.1 months. The result is that the overall prison population in this state has dropped 13 bodies, not the 500 or so that was being predicted when the reforms became law.
The state is now faced with two choices. It can open the medium security wing of the Deer Ridge prison outside of Madras, a facility that never has been used. That would cost about $9.5 million, mostly in additional staffing, and would allow the state to house more prisoners. Or, it can tell counties to keep some of their criminals home, move Deer Ridge’s current prisoners to the medium security wing at a cost of $2 million, and hope the Legislature comes up with the remaining $7.5 million needed to add prisoners to Deer Ridge.
It has chosen the latter.
The decision raises concerns, clearly. Among the biggest is the fear that in order to find money for Deer Ridge, lawmakers will dip into justice reinvestment funds, which go to local anti-recidivism programs. For money-shy counties, that possibility has ugly implications.
All this suggests it’s time for the state to reconsider its assumptions about its prison population and prepare to deal with the problem. It cannot continue asking counties to keep bad guys at home at county expense