Too often, the US has relied on a strategy of warehousing and mandatory minimums instead of more cost-effective approaches for nonviolent offenders. Although Oregon had been recognized as a national leader in community corrections during much of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the state began to drift away from this approach, as a greater share of funding began going to prisons instead of probation and law enforcement. Indeed, Oregon saw a whopping 47% increase in their prison population from 2000.
The 18% increase in the incarceration rate inspired the creation of a Commission on Public Safety which made consensus recommendations, most of which were ultimately adopted by the legislative leaders of both parties who crafted House Bill 3194. This bill was signed into law in July 2013.
The Commission’s reports demonstrated that in 2011 and 2012 there had been a jump in the proportion of low-risk drug offenders present in the prison population and therefore endorsed greater flexibility in dealing with convicts. Although a plurality of convicts are still granted probation, the percentage sent to prison has increased from 22% to 26% since 2000.
The reforms in HB3194, which are projected to save the state a projected $600 million over the next decade, include reworking mandatory minimums for certain types of drug offenses, as well as driving with a suspended license. In 2011, driving without a license was the fifth most prevalent commitment offense for offenders sent to state prison in Oregon, which HB3194 addresses by adding this offense to the presumptive probation list, though such offenders could still be sent to prison if there is a danger to public safety or if they fail to comply with probation.
Additionally, counties are given a fiscal incentive by the state to strengthen community corrections strategies, such as drug courts and electronic monitoring, in order to reduce both recidivism and excessive prison terms for low-level nonviolent offenders. The bill is projected to result in savings of $17 million in the first biennium due to diminished prison costs and even more costs will be averted since new prisons will no longer need to be built. The bill reallocates $4 million of that in the coming biennium to strengthen services for crime victims. Total ten year projected savings from HB3194 are $326 million. Other prison savings are redirected to strengthen community corrections and law enforcement, including restoring 24-hour police response in some counties where it had been curtailed in the wake of the 2008 recession.
The bill also provides an earned time component that provides a positive incentive for probationers to be compliant and succeed in holding a job and fulfilling all obligations, including victim restitution. Furthermore, it adjusts Measure 57 by repealing mandatory minimums for certain low-level drug offenses. Finally, the legislation extends the period of supervision following a prison term from 30 to 90 days for most offenders, which will ensure greater accountability as inmates reenter society. This reflects the research showing 30 days is too short to provide meaningful supervision and structure and thereby reduce recidivism among reentering inmates.
Although it took a lot of work to develop and advance HB 3194, the new changes will simultaneously contain costs and preserve public safety by implementing many of the Commission on Public Safety’s recommendations. Ultimately, this legislation will better ensure prison space is prioritized for violent and dangerous offenders at the same time many nonviolent offenders who are not dangerous are more effectively held accountable in the community.