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State economists: Prison population declining from new programs

The October prison population forecast indicates that programs lawmakers enacted earlier this year are already working to curtail influx of prisoners and avoid the need for a second women's prison.

PARIS ACHEN/CAPITAL BUREAU - Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, OregonOregon's prison population in the next decade is forecast to be 11 percent less than previously projected largely due to a law passed earlier this year, according to a report by the state Office of Economic Analysis.

The Oregon Safety and Savings Act came out of state legislators' desire to avoid having to open a second women's prison in the state.

The programs are "just in the formative stages and data do not exist to produce reasonable estimates. However, these programs are impacting intakes already, and as such are having an impact on prison usages," state economists wrote.

Opening the second prison would have cost the state nearly $10 million at a time when state legislators were facing a $1.4 billion revenue deficit. The Oregon Emergency Board in December denied a request from the Department of Corrections to fund the second prison.

Instead, lawmakers and the nonprofit Partnership for Safety and Justice crafted bills aimed specifically at reducing the female prison population.

Gov. Kate Brown signed the act into law Aug. 8.

Filled as House Bill 3078, the act made three changes to curtail the number of women prisoners. The law expands the eligibility criteria for the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program so more parents can participate.

The legislation also increases the limit for a supportive early-release program, known as short-term transitional leave, from 90 to 120 days.

Finally, it decreases sentences for first-degree theft and identity theft, from 18 months down to 13 months, while adding more community supervision. Lawmakers targeted those two crimes to reduce the number of women inmates. Women are statistically more likely to commit property crimes than violent crimes and are often driven by drug addiction.

"We know that addiction and mental illness are the primary contributors to many drug and property crimes," said Andy Ko, executive director of Partnership for Safety and Justice.

Investing in drug abuse treatment, mental health care and other supportive services that address the underlying drivers of crime is the best way to improve public safety, Ko said. "It has never made sense to warehouse this population in expensive prison cells that cause more harm by separating them from their children and communities," he said.

Tim Colahan, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, said the law changes need "to be judged by the impact on the rates of crime and recidivism."

"Safety should not be compromised for savings," he said.

Colahan, a former Harney County district attorney, said the state has long prioritized prison for the most violent criminals, and a small percentage of inmates are repeat property offenders.

"As a result, the population affected by the legislative changes in 2017 are virtually all high-risk individuals,' he said.

The Oregon Corrections Population Forecast, projects the number of women inmates will drop by 8 percent between this year and September 2027.

Just a year ago, DOC requested money to open the second women's prison in Salem, because of chronic overcrowding at the state's only existing women's prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. The Oct. 1 report puts plans for the second facility on indefinite hold.

The semi-annual Oregon Corrections Population Forecast gives state economists' projections for the population supervised by the state Department of Corrections. The information helps that agency and the Criminal Justice Commission to plan budgets and prison beds.

The semi-annual report, released Oct. 1, projects an overall 1 percent decrease in the existing prison population over the next decade, even as the state's overall population is projected to grow by 12 percent. In contrast to women prisoners, the male prison population is still projected to grow slightly, by .7 percent in the next decade.

Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau
email: pachen@portlandtribune.com
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