Last summer, at the conclusion of the 2011 session, I was pleased to be appointed to the Governor's Commission on Public Safety.
Our seven-member bipartisan group was directed to review Oregon's criminal sentencing policies; to assemble information including best practices from other states; and to make recommendations for the Legislature aimed at ensuring that Oregon taxpayer dollars are spent to maximize public safety in the most cost-effective way.
This work is necessary because Oregon is on an unsustainable path. Under policies now in place, it is projected that Oregon will have to spend $600 million over the next 10 years to build 2,000 new prison beds. Many of these beds will be used to house people who have committed non-violent offenses and are at low risk to re-offend, compared to those now in prison. The public and policymakers alike question the wisdom of spending $600 million that we don't have, to imprison more people at a time when crime rates are at a record low, while the economic downturn is forcing us to slash budgets for education and other critical services.
How did we get here? Oregon's criminal sentencing policies are an accumulation of different laws enacted over the past two decades, some by the Legislature and some by ballot measure. Those laws have had some positive results. The drop in Oregon's crime rate since 1995 is among the largest in the nation, and this is in part because we are doing a better job locking up violent and repeat offenders for longer periods of time. That is something that should not and will not change.
Incarceration, however, is by far the most expensive way of addressing crime. Notably, other states (including tough-on-everything Texas) have experienced great reductions in crime while decreasing their spending on prisons. They have done this by investing more in proven methods for preventing crime in the first place. This suggests that Oregon can find less expensive approaches than building new prisons to keep crime rates low. For example, we know beyond any doubt that the vast majority of non-violent property crime has its roots in substance abuse. Spending more on proven treatment programs is a better and cheaper technique than incarceration for dealing with those offenders and preventing future crime.
This recommendation is one of many contained in the report that the commission released on Dec. 30 (available at www.oregon.gov/CJC/CommPubSaf.shtml). Our report summarizes months of public meetings around the state and information about Oregon's present practices and trends; public attitudes toward crime; innovations in other states; and scientific data and analysis of crime and recidivism. The next step is to spend 2012 building on this work to develop specific proposals for the Legislature. Those proposals must address crime prevention, evidence-based sentencing practices, and improved services for crime victims, all through the lens of cost-benefit analysis.
Some people need to go to prison and need to stay there. Oregon's commitment to keeping dangerous criminals behind bars will never change. By making smarter use of our tax dollars on low-risk offenders, we will ensure that we continue to have the resources we need to keep the dangerous offenders in prison. Oregon is a safe place. It can be even safer, at a lower cost, than it is today.
State Rep. Chris Garrett of Lake Oswego represents Oregon House District 38.