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Review of Measure 11 is worthwhile

Like plenty of Oregon’s lawmakers, we’ve adopted a wait-and-see posture on a bill that would erase some mandatory minimum prison sentences required under the umbrella of Measure 11.

Oregonians overwhelmingly approved the measure in 1994, agreeing with the argument that judges were being too soft on convicted criminals. At the time of its passage, proponents also argued that longer, mandatory sentences would hold lawbreakers accountable for their crimes and serve as a deterrent to crime.

At the same time of its passage, Oregonians gave the Legislature the right to change Measure 11, but only if they achieved a two-thirds majority in both the House and the Senate.

If for no other reason, at least the conversation taking place in the Joint Committee on Public Safety is giving lawmakers a chance to review how well Measure 11 serves Oregonians almost 20 years after its passage. And a lot has happened.

One thing that is inescapable is the fact that Oregonians pay far more to operate prisons as a consequence of Measure 11. Ten years after the measure passed, the state’s prison population had grown by more than 40 percent, at a time when crime rates had been dropping, mirroring the national trend.

Also in that timeline, terrorists attacked on Sept. 11, 2001, the political climate shifted, wars began in Afghanistan and Iraq, and of course Americans were forced to come to terms with a devastating economic meltdown. In the aftermath, Oregon has been crippled in its ability to fund state government — caught between adequately funding public schools or paying for the mandatory warehousing of criminals.

In the balance of this debate is the notion that nobody wants to appear soft on crime by letting criminals off with a slap on the wrist. On the other hand, the legislation now before the lawmakers suggests that money spent to feed and house some Measure 11 prisoners might be better spent on community policing in an effort to stop crime before it begins.

Somewhere in the debate between those equally reasonable points of view is a compromise. Lawmakers haven’t gotten that far. At least not yet. And from what it sounds like, this legislation faces an uphill climb at reaching a compromise that the two-thirds majority can agree upon.

We hope Oregon’s lawmakers from both major political parties take the wait-and-see approach to this legislation, to see what comes out of committee. We hope they wait to hear from crime victims, judges, police officers and other experts before deciding how to vote on this package of Measure 11 revisions.

It would be wrong to oppose changes to Measure 11 simply because it’s unpopular with voters. If it’s the right thing to do — according to criminal justice experts — then Oregon’s lawmakers should have the guts to make these changes.



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