Editorial: Protect county budgets from effects of prison reforms

Umatilla County officials fear the governor’s proposals to save money on prisons could cost counties more for probation and related services.

It’s a concern legislators need to consider as they study the proposals resulting from Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Commission on Public Safety. If reforms send more work to the counties, additional funds for counties must be provided.

Kitzhaber’s budget does include increases in funding for community corrections, according to The Associated Press, and his public safety commission has proposed grant programs that would funnel more funds to counties. But Umatilla is concerned it won’t be enough, especially for rural counties.

Oregon’s prison population has been forecast to grow by 2,300 beds in 10 years, at an additional cost of $600 million. But the governor asked an expanded safety commission to recommend ways to stem the cost, and the 2013 Legislature is expected to consider a variety of proposals. The goal is to save money on prisons while investing more in programs that prevent crime and reform criminals.

Not all members of the commission agreed with its proposals — some of which would require voter approval — so they were reported to the governor without a recommendation that they be enacted. They include:

• Giving judges discretion in some cases that now have mandatory sentences under Measure 11 and Measure 57.

• Relaxing requirements related to marijuana and driving with a suspended license.

• Letting prisoners’ and probationers’ behavior cut their sentences and supervision time.

• Cutting the cost per inmate by reducing costs of running the prisons.

• Sending additional funds to counties that send fewer convicts to prison.

Many of the proposals are sensible, not just to save money, but also to improve public safety, but they are also controversial. Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, for example, believes the focus should be primarily on the costs of prison administration and labor, not on the number of prisoners.

Umatilla’s question is narrower, however, and could easily get lost in the heated debate sure to take place in the Legislature. As they consider proposed changes, legislators need to be sure there’s no shift in costs to counties without funds to cover them.

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