Editorial: Public safety panel proposes worthy changes

Oregon has a prison population of some 14,000 inmates, costing the state about $1.3 billion for the current two-year budget on corrections. The corrections budget has been increasing as a proportion of state spending — now accounting for about one in every $10 the state spends.

And it’s going to get more expensive.

State Supreme Court Justice Paul De Muniz wrote that the state’s prison population is expected to grow by another 2,300 beds in 10 years. That growth will cost the state about another $600 million.

Can public safety be protected and costs be held down?

Gov. John Kitzhaber convened a panel earlier this year to answer that question. The commission released its report this week.

The panel didn’t agree on everything. It did release recommendations that may be turned into bills for the Legislature to consider in a few weeks.

We can’t endorse the proposals without seeing the legislation, but the report offers intriguing solutions, including:

• Give judges more discretion to set the sentences for some crimes such as Robbery 2, Assault 2, and Sex Abuse 1. There is a wide variation in the crimes people are convicted of under those sentences and the impact on victims. For example, Robbery 2 can “include everything from two teenagers pushing a man down and stealing his cell phone to a person holding an unloaded gun at someone’s head and demanding money.” Mandatory minimum sentences for such crimes do not give the courts the ability to exercise suitable discretion so the punishment fits the crime and the offender.

• The commission recommends a similar increase in the judicial discretion for some property crimes.

• There’s a recommendation to increase the amount of marijuana in possession or production before it would trigger a prison sentence. This would bring Oregon’s sentences in line with federal sentencing.

• And under another proposal, inmates could reduce their sentences by doing things like going through schooling, finishing addiction programs and not getting in trouble in prison.

Those ideas are not without controversy. They may prioritize state prisons for more violent offenders. But the state’s district attorneys are wary of reductions in mandatory sentences. Some legislators may also worry that they will be tagged with a label of being “soft on crime.”

We hope the Legislature will be smart on crime. Other states have managed to get similar reforms through their Legislatures. Arkansas did it. Georgia did it. Hawaii did it. Kentucky did it. South Carolina did it. Oregon should, too.

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