Oregon incarceration rate expected to fall 11 percent over next decade

After years of growth, Oregon prisons are expected to see a "dramatically lower" number of inmates over the next 10 years.

The incarceration rate — inmates versus the state's general population — is expected to fall 11 percent.

The change, according to the authors of the recently released Office of Economic Analysis' corrections population forecast, stems from the passage of House Bill 3078 in the 2017 Oregon Legislative session.

The current prison population of 14,725 is expected to shrink even as the state's population is predicted to grow by 12 percent.

The forecast was vindication for supporters of HB 3078, who argued the bill, which aimed to change sentencing guidelines for property and drug convictions and allow more people into treatment and transitional services, would keep people out of Oregon's crowded prisons.

After years of growth, Oregon prisons are expected to see a "dramatically lower" number of inmates wover the next 10 years.

The incarceration rate — inmates versus the state's general population — is expected to fall 11 percent.

The change, according to the authors of the recently released Office of Economic Analysis' corrections population forecast, stems from the passage of House Bill 3078 in the 2017 Oregon Legislative session.

The current prison population of 14,725 is expected to shrink even as the state's population is predicted to grow by 12 percent.

The forecast was vindication for supporters of HB 3078, who argued the bill, which aimed to change sentencing guidelines for property and drug convictions and allow more people into treatment and transitional services, would keep people out of Oregon's crowded prisons.

The total prison population is expected to fall significantly in the next five years, followed by some nominal growth. The male inmate population is expected to hit 13,510 in 2027 — a "tepid" increase of .7 percent due to the anticipated impact of the bill, according to the report.

In the past, Oregon saw a huge uptick in the female inmate population and was faced with the possibility of having to open a second women's prison, Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, said.

Now, the state can avoid spending $17 million to reopen the building and $20 million in operating costs, she said.

Winters, a longtime proponent using treatment and community services instead of locking up low-level drug and property offenders, was one of five Republican legislatures to vote in favor of HB 3078.

It passed both chambers and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown. The bill applies to sentences on or after Jan. 1, 2018. 

Supporters said the bill, also known as the Safety and Savings Act, was designed with families and women in mind.

It preserves the Family Sentencing Alternative, a program passed in 2015 in an effort to keep children and parent offenders together by providing them with intensive supervision and services instead of prison.

The bill also expanded the program to include pregnant women and increase the number of counties participating in alternative sentencing. It also increased short-term transitional leave from 30 days to 120 days as well as moving shortening the mandatory sentences for theft and identity theft offenses. 

Defendants being sentenced for person felonies, like assault and armed robbery, and sex crimes will not be eligible for alternative sentencing.

Winters said seeing the positive effects of lower sentences for non-violent crimes and early intervention in her hometown spurred her to vote in favor of the bill.

"For me, it just makes sense," she said.

According to legislative reports, the cost per prison bed in Oregon averages $34,511 per month. The average per-student spending in Oregon’s schools is $8,834 a year.

Locking people up won't make them productive members of society, Winters said.

If they are able to stay out of prison, find employment and stay connected to their families, not only will a massive amount of money be saved, but communities will be safer.

"I think we're leading the way across the country," Winters said. 

During the debate over HB 3078, Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote spoke on behalf of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, which opposed the bill.

Foote said the growth prison population had been slowing for years. He warned that focusing too much on shrinking the prison population could put justice and community safety in the backseat.

He said his office has seen a substantial increase in criminal offenses, including a 17 percent increase in property crimes and a 9 percent increase in violent crimes from 2015 to 2016.

"If incarceration is reduced too much, crime will increase," he said. "That only makes sense. Perhaps this is what we are beginning to see here. Only time will tell."

For questions, comments and news tips, email reporter Whitney Woodworth at wmwoodwort@statesmanjournal.com, call 503-399-6884 or follow on Twitter @wmwoodworth

© 2017 KGW-TV


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