Editorial: Better approach to prisons


Keeping all sides happy while reforming Oregon's prison system may be as difficult to accomplish as making major changes to its Public Employee Retirement System. A majority of Gov. John Kitzhaber's blue-ribbon Commission on Public Safety came up with a reform proposal that relied in part on changes to mandatory minimum sentences set forth in Measure 11, a move that would have required a two-thirds majority to pass.

It was clear, however, that the Measure 11 changes could not get the support they needed. The idea of voting to lessen sentences for some sex offenders and robbers was unpalatable not only to the majority of the state's district attorneys, but to county sheriffs and others.

Patrick Flaherty, Deschutes County's district attorney, noted that the current system has served Oregon pretty well, something borne out by declining crime rates in the state.

That doesn't mean there's no room for improvements, however, and negotiations on just what they should be were continuing Friday. Among those being considered: one that would allow probation rather than jail time for some marijuana and driving while suspended crimes, another that would allow non-Measure 11 prisoners to earn early release more quickly and a third that would give counties money to keep people out of jail.

It's likely that the proposals made public Wednesday could get the simple majority they would need to become law. Legislators still hope to bring district attorneys and sheriffs on board — something they had not accomplished late this week.

We suspect they'll have their work cut out for them. Estimates of the growth in the number of prisoners in the current system continue to decline. An April 1 projection by the Department of Corrections cut that number by 280 from its October 2012 estimate, and about 1,000 lower than a 2009 projection.

Meanwhile, Flaherty and others make a good case for the notion that the state's system works. Oregon, they note, may jail a smaller percentage of its criminals than most states, but it has a higher percentage of violent offenders behind bars than any other. Its recidivism rate is low.

Those numbers speak to a system that works. If lawmakers want to keep district attorneys and sheriffs happy even as they please the governor, they'll need to demonstrate that what they want won't change that.