Sentencing reforms seek to reduce incarceration rate, racial profiling
SALEM — Hillsboro resident Beth Hacker could have served nearly three years in prison for petty theft crimes she committed during her struggle with addiction to prescription opioid, oxycodone.
Hacker, a mother of four, was convicted of multiple identity theft counts for forging two checks for $8 and $30 and giving false information on a rental assistance application.
Measure 57, passed by voters in 2008, set mandatory minimum sentences for drug and property crimes.
A legislative effort in 2015 to keep families together spared Hacker that fate.
She spent nine months in prison before being allowed to participate in a work-release program called the Family Sentencing Alternative Program and designed by state lawmakers in 2015 to keep offenders with their children.
"Had I not had the program at all, I would have been in prison for 30 months," Hacker said.
During this year's legislative session, state lawmakers continued to reform sentences and expand prison alternative programs in an effort to reduce incarceration and curtail disproportionate felony drug convictions of people of color.
"This was a step in the right direction," said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. "We are beginning to see a public health approach to criminal justice that makes more sense, but it should be considered only an initial step. We need to move further."
Oregon House Bill 3078 expanded the eligibility criteria for the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program so more parents can participate.
The legislation decreased sentences for Measure 57 crimes first-degree theft and identity theft from 18 to 13 months, but added more community supervision.
Lawmakers targeted those two crimes to try to reduce the women's prison population and avoid opening a second state women's prison. Women are statistically more likely to commit property crimes than violent crimes.
The bill also increases the limit for a supportive early-release program, known as short-term transitional leave, from 90 to 120 days.
House Bill 2355, crafted as an anti-racial profiling bill, reduces sentences for possession of six controlled substances by downgrading the crimes from felonies to misdemeanors.
People of color are disproportionately charged with drug crimes, even though they use drugs at the same rate as people who appear Caucasian, Singh said.
Opposition to the changes prompted lawmakers to include previous convictions as a disqualifying factor.
Singh said the disqualifying factor still discriminates against people of color, because they have a greater rate of conviction.
"If the whole point of enacting the law is to begin thinking about addiction and substance abuse as a public health issue but you put in a disqualification for repeated behavior, the law is not working fully to do what it is purported to do," Singh said.
"We are talking about behavior that by definition is repetitive."
The bill requires the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to examine the effects of the changes on people of color.
Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, who said he was "100 percent behind" the anti-racial profiling measures nevertheless voted against the bill.
"Measure 57 was driven because people understand that the property crimes that exist today 85 percent of the time are done because of drug use," Olson said. "My concern is … you are going to see property crime go up at the same time."
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck University of London. The nation represents about 4.4 percent of the world population and 22 percent of prisoners around the world.
The following drug possession crimes were downgraded to a misdemeanor unless the offender has a previous felony or two controlled substance convictions:
• Less than 40 user units of psychedelic mushrooms
• Less than 40 pills or units of prescription drug opioids, oxycodone or methadone
• Less than 1 gram of heroin
• Less than to 1 gram or five pills of ecstasy
• Less than 2 grams of cocaine
• Less than 2 grams of methamphetamine
The presumptive sentence for first-degree theft and identity theft, both Measure 57 offenses, were reduced from 18 months to 13 months, unless the offender has a previous conviction of first-degree aggravated theft, first- or second-degree robbery or possession of a stolen vehicle; or four previous convictions of 19 crimes.
The changes are effective the day Gov. Kate Brown signs the legislation into law.