Editorial: Reform Oregon’s prison reform

Gov. John Kitzhaber is right when he says Oregon spends a ton of money on public safety. He’s probably also right to ask a commission to try to trim what’s spent, or, at the very least, slow the spending increases as much as possible. At the same time, however, the governor must find a way to do all that without leaving Oregonians feeling their safety is at risk.

He hasn’t been helped in that effort by a new risk assessment tool currently being tested by parole and probation officials to help determine how current inmates would fare on the outside. If the likes of one of the men who bombed a Woodburn bank a couple of years ago — killing two police officers in the process — is considered “low risk,” as he is, it makes one wonder what crimes one must commit to be considered “high risk.”

Yet recognizing that the assessment tool may be too easy on too many of those behind bars doesn’t change one basic fact. At least some forecasters say that without change, the state will have to spend $600 million in the next decade to house a predicted 2,000 more inmates than are behind bars today. Some of the state’s district attorneys challenge that latter figure, arguing that growth in prison populations generally falls short of predictions.

In a state struggling to finance schools, health care and the like, spending ever more money on prisons hardly makes sense.

That’s because, according to FBI statistics, Oregon’s crime rates have fallen in recent years, and, in fact, are lower today than they have been any time since the 1960s. Nor is the trend limited to Oregon.

In fact, crime rates have been dropping nationwide, despite widely varied sentencing practices. In Oregon, Measure 11’s mandatory minimum sentences may have contributed to the decline, though it turns out many of those charged under the law are convicted or plead guilty to something less.

All this leaves Kitzhaber and his commission with a problem. The risk assessment checklist, in its current form, leaves far too much room for truly bad guys to look reasonably good. Unless that is changed, prison reform is likely to go nowhere.