SALEM, Ore. — Oregon legislators are beginning to scrutinize a sentencing reform bill that proponents say could save the state more than $600 million in prison costs, but opponents of the legislation contend current policies have helped discourage criminals.
The Joint Committee on Public Safety is to begin hearing testimony at 5:30 p.m. on the legislation that would scale back Oregon's mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
The legislation was developed from a 2012 report by the governor's Commission on Public Safety that found the state's growing prison population unsustainable in the long-term. The commission said without changes Oregon will need to build about 2,000 additional prison beds over the next decade, which could cost the state more than $600 million.
Gov. John Kitzhaber and other advocates want the Legislature to reduce the time that certain offenders spend in prison to slow the growth of prison populations and prevent the need for more space to house inmates. Most controversially, they want lawmakers to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses.
Over the last 15 years, public safety spending has sharply increased and now consumes a larger share of the state's budget, crowding out spending on education and human services, the commission report found.
"If you are unwilling to act on this issue, we will, by default, be choosing prisons over schools," Kitzhaber told lawmakers during his annual state of the state speech in January.
The committee is looking at a bill that would make changes to Measure 11, a 1994 voter-approved initiative that created mandatory minimum sentences for some violent crimes. The bill would remove mandatory minimum sentences for people convicted of certain sex abuse, assault and robbery crimes.
Backers of the legislation say certain offenders can be effectively monitored in sentencing programs that cost much less than prisons.
Changing Measure 11 would require a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate, so the measure could not pass on a party-line vote. Rolling back the voter-approved law presents a tough political decision for lawmakers who are wary of casting votes that could be perceived as soft on crime.
The proposal has drawn opposition from some in the law-enforcement community. They say Kitzhaber is overstating the problem and Oregon's sentencing policies have been effective at reducing crime.
— Associated Press