Editorial: Legislature finds prison reform compromise

Published Jun 28, 2013 at 05:00AM

It was clear early in the current legislative session that Oregonians are not ready for dramatic prison reform. They will, however, likely find less to object to in a more modest bill that will save the state as much as $17 million over the next two years.

Options from the Commission on Public Safety aimed squarely at Measure 11, a 1994 voter initiative that set mandatory sentences for a variety of felonies ranging from aggravated murder to first-degree sex abuse. Most Measure 11 offenses involve violence against people.

Had the commission’s options become law, mandatory sentences for three of the four crimes that account for 40 percent of Measure 11 convictions would have disappeared, according to the Willamette Week newspaper. That fact and others led groups ranging from sheriffs to district attorneys to crime victims to oppose the reforms and lobby for something more modest.

They got it in House Bill 3194, which was approved by the Joint Committee on Public Safety Monday. Instead of changing sentencing on Measure 11 offenses, reforms now center on reducing penalties for most crimes involving marijuana and felony driving while suspended, removing some sentences from Measure 57 requirements and changing terms for early discharge, probation and the like. In addition, the bill sends money to counties for local programs aimed at reducing recidivism and creates a task force on public safety that will review implementation of the bill and come up with a proposal to establish a plan for earned conditional release of juveniles convicted of Measure 11 offenses.

The changes were enough to bring the state’s district attorneys association on board. That group notes that HB 3194 should control prison costs and future growth even as it shifts money to local crime prevention and victim assistance programs. Because of those changes, the association supports the measure.

Supporters of the bill say it will hold the state’s prison population flat for at least the next five years. If it does, that surely is a good thing. The measure should be approved.