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Bill would provide monetary ‘rewards’ to counties for prison sentence reductions
by Samantha White
District Attorney (DA) Tim Colahan attended the regular meeting of the Harney County Court (held April 3) to discuss House Bill (HB) 3194.
In a memorandum addressed to the court, Colahan wrote (in part) that HB 3194 is “a bill that would purportedly ‘reward’ counties with money in exchange for wholesale prison sentence reductions and other sentence reform.”
During the meeting, Colahan said the bill “encapsulates policy proposals” that were put forward by Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Commission on Public Safety.
According to an article published by Willamette Week entitled, “The Hard Truth About Oregon’s Prisons: They Work,” Kitzhaber’s plan is to “promote alternatives to incarceration and effectively cap the number of inmates in Oregon’s 14 prisons around the current number — 14,308.”
Colahan said the Commission on Public Safety, which was reconstituted in 2012, “came in and did what they referred to as an exhaustive study of Oregon’s criminal justice system.” He said the commission operated under the premise that Oregon’s prison system is “growing at an explosive rate,” and, if changes are not made, a new prison will be needed to support the rapidly increasing inmate population.
But Colahan said the prison inmate forecast is “inflated.” He added, “This is based on the false premise that the prisons are out of control, and we are sending people to prison for low-level offenses.” He said the projected number of inmates is actually within 373 of where the governor wants it to be. “If we can keep 373 people from going to prison, we won’t need sweeping changes,” he said. Colahan added that he believes there will be enough space for inmates in the state’s existing prisons.
If HB 3194 is passed into law, there will be monetary incentives to reward counties that reduce sentences.
“The governor’s office is trying to buy off counties with small amounts of money,” Colahan said. He added that, as a result, counties would take over the responsibility of inmates who would have otherwise gone to prison. “If we buy into this incentive plan, we are taking a huge risk that we are going to take on a huge responsibility,” he said.
Colahan added that the bill proposes an end to mandatory minimum sentences for second-degree robbery, second-degree assault and first-degree sex abuse. “Those three offenses comprise 42 percent of Measure 11 sentences,” he said. He added that HB 3194 would result in a “major change” to Measure 11.
Approved by voters in 1994, Measure 11 established mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes.
However, in his memorandum, Colahan wrote that Oregon’s prison incarceration rate is near the bottom third of the U.S. and 25 percent below the national average (even though the state’s crime rate and need for prison space are not.) He wrote that Oregon incarcerates the lowest percentage of non-violent offenders and second-lowest percentage of drug offenders in the U.S. He added that 70 percent of Oregon felony crimes result in sentences of local probation instead of prison, and the Oregon Department of Corrections budget is using a smaller percentage of the general fund than it did in 2004 and 2005. He wrote that, since the introduction of Measure 11, Oregon has moved from one of the 10 most violent states to one of the 10 least violent states, and its actual growth in prison population has been consistently well below the official projected growth for most of the last 20 years.
But despite a lower rate of incarceration, Oregon’s prisons have the seventh highest operating costs in the nation. Colahan said many of the operating costs are for labor, but he is “certainly not suggesting” that public employees should not be adequately funded.
Colahan also said it costs less to incarcerate Measure 11 offenders than it does to prevent them from going to prison, explaining that offenders who are not sent to prison could commit additional crimes, incurring costs for victims and police officers.
Colahan added that money should not be the only deciding factor.
“We all know money drives policy, but I really question whether judges should have money in the back of their minds when they are sentencing. At some point, justice needs to be served,” he said.
Colahan said a lot of pressure has been put on the Oregon Juvenile Department and the Association of Oregon Counties (AOC) to support the bill.
Harney County Judge Steve Grasty said the AOC would be voting to determine whether it supports the bill during its April 8 meeting. He added that the AOC has been “accepted as a political group,” explaining that Harney County has more pull as part of the association than it would as an individual county.
“I’m going to go to that meeting,” Grasty said. He added, “We are not just going to go in and vote in opposition of our DA and law enforcement,” stating that these are the “folks that are most knowledgeable” about the issue.
Grasty said the bill has two parts: incentives and reduction in sentencing.
“I think the conversation will break into two areas — will the county support the incentive side, and what do we do about sentencing? Justifiably, we need money for community corrections,” Grasty said, but he asked what the sentencing options would be.
“Quite honestly, I think the bill will continue regardless of AOC’s position, but it may slow down a bit if the AOC opposes it,” Colahan said.
Harney County Commissioner Dan Nichols asked Colahan what his “dream resolution” would be.
Colahan replied that some changes should be made, but not to Measure 11.
“We can be where the governor wants to be without 3194,” he said. He added that HB 3194 put all the proposals that were made by the Commission on Public Safety together into one group. “When packaged together with all these other things, it becomes a poison pill,” he said.
Colahan said HB 3195 could be an alternative to HB 3194, but it has received “very little attention because all of the attention is on 3194.”
Grasty said HB 3195 is “not even on the radar of the AOC.”
Nichols asked, “How much of an answer is 3195?”
Colahan replied that additions would need to be made to HB 3195 in order to “get to where it would need to be to prevent a new prison from being built.” He added that the bill “scares the the governor’s staff because it’s too simple, and it takes the wind out of its sails.”
Colahan added that the issue is a “constantly changing picture,” but “what we are trying to say is, ‘Slow down, look at these numbers, and don’t go to the extreme that 3194 is.’”
Veterans Service Officer Guy McKay attended the meeting to provide a quarterly update regarding veterans services in Harney County.
McKay said he appreciates the local radio station for airing a veterans outreach radio show.
McKay added that he has been talking with local veterans groups about establishing an Oregon Band of Brothers group in Harney County. According to its website, the Oregon Band of Brothers originated in Bend and expanded to other Oregon cities. The group is comprised of veterans from every conflict since World War II and includes every rank and service.
McKay said he partnered with Teri Cain and other community members to organize an event for military families. He said on Friday, April 26, a “wishing tree” will be planted at the Burns Armory. He explained that the tree planting was inspired by “The Wishing Tree,” a children’s book that was written by Mary Redman and illustrated by Christina Rodriguez. In this book, a young girl writes her hopes and prayers for her father, who was deployed, on yellow ribbons that she ties to the branches of a tree.
Nichols said, “It’s a good thing you are planting a tree at the armory. It could use a tree.”
McKay said he is also working to organize a symposium at the Burns Armory on May 17 that would help teach the public to recognize the signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
McKay and the court also discussed the possibility of organizing a barbecue for a battalion that will be staying at the Harney County Fairgrounds on its way back from a training in Idaho.
McKay said, “I’m going to keep doing events … and pretty soon people will become aware of [veteran’s services].”
Grasty told McKay, “I heard a lot of people compliment you and saw a lot of people shake your hand in thanks. I think we have as good of a county vets service program as we’ve had, and that’s to your credit.”
McKay replied, “I appreciate [the court] for giving me the opportunity to be what I can be.”
Compliments were also given to Harney County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jen Hoke who attended the meeting to update the court regarding chamber activities and inform the court that she will be resigning from her chamber position.
“Without a doubt, you have been the best director that the chamber has ever had,” Grasty said.
Hoke informed the court that the Eastern Oregon Visitor’s Association issued its guide for 2013. She said the guide is used by Travel Oregon to promote tourism in the 11 Eastern Oregon Counties, including Harney County.
She presented the court with a flyer for the John Scharff Migratory Bird Festival, which will take place from April 11-14, and briefed the court about festival activities.
Hoke reminded the court that Cycle Oregon will be coming through the area in September. She said more than 2,000 cyclers will be staying a total of four nights in various locations throughout the county, which is enough people to almost double the population of Burns. She said 20 local groups and organizations have “stepped up” to help host the cyclers. She added that this will be a good fundraising opportunity for the groups, as Cycle Oregon will pay them a minimum of $500. She said Cycle Oregon contracts with each of the groups, and they are paid individually.
Hoke then presented the court with a framed print of a watercolor by Mary Lou Wilhelm.
In other business, the court:
• appointed Harney County Clerk Derrin Robinson as its probate commissioner;
• discussed federal sequestration;
• received an update from Grasty regarding the Sage Grouse Conservation Partnership (SageCon);
• was addressed by Herb Vloedman during the public comment period. Vloedman requested a list of all the vendors that the court has done business with this fiscal year;
• scheduled its first budget meeting for April 24 at 10 a.m.
The next regular meeting of the county court will be held Wednesday, April 17, at 10 a.m. in Judge Grasty’s office at the courthouse.