‘Everything works now’

By Dick Mason, The Observer April 12, 2013 11:59 am

If House Bill 3194 is approved by the Legislature and becomes law, police enforcement officers like Ryan Miller of the La Grande Police Department could be spending more of their time dealing with convicted felons released early from prison. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)
If House Bill 3194 is approved by the Legislature and becomes law, police enforcement officers like Ryan Miller of the La Grande Police Department could be spending more of their time dealing with convicted felons released early from prison. (CHRIS BAXTER/The Observer)

Union County district attorney questions Legislature’s quest to reform successful Measure 11 

by DICK MASON / The Observer 

 

“Everything works now. Why tinker with what works?” Thompson said.

Measure 11 is credited with reversing what had been a surging violent crime rate two decades ago. 

 

The state’s per capita violent crime rate jumped 626 percent between 1960 and 1984, according to statistics listed by Howard Rodstein, a policy analyst for Crime Victims United, in a Nov. 19, 2012, letter to Paul De Muniz, then the chief justice of the Oregon Supreme Court. The state’s violent crime rate remained near the 1984 level for the next decade. Oregon’s crime situation was so bad that in the early 1990s, the state had the highest bank robbery rate in the United States, said La Grande Police Chief Brian Harvey. The state’s crime rate dropped significantly after the mandatory sentencing measure was approved by voters.

“What turned it around was Measure 11,” Harvey said.

Measure 11 works because it serves as a deterrent for criminals and keeps violent criminals off the streets. People convicted of Measure 11 crimes are sentenced to a minimum mandatory 70 months in prison, during which time they have no possibility for parole or early release.

“When (violent offenders) are in prison, they are not committing crimes,” Harvey said.

Prior to the passage of Measure 11, people convicted of murder served significantly less time in prison, on average, than they do now, Harvey said. The minimum sentence for murder was 300 months before Measure 11 and still is. Still, people are serving more time in prison for murder now because Measure 11 provides no opportunity for parole or early release. 

Harvey said the legislation, which would reform Measure 11, would result in hundreds of criminals being released prematurely, including many convicted of murder.

This is a disturbing possibility considering considering the 30-percent recidivism rate for violent offenders in Oregon. A state’s recidivism rate is the percentage of offenders who are convicted of a felony within 36 months of their release.

The recidivism rate in Oregon is actually higher than 30 percent in part because it does not include offenders who recommit violent crimes outside the state. It also does not include people released from prison who were convicted of serious misdemeanors like domestic assault. 

All this means that the number of criminals on the streets would likely jump significantly if steps are taken to scale back Oregon’s Measure 11 law.

“It would absolutely have a negative impact on public safety,” Harvey said.

Thompson said the release of hundreds of prisoners early would put additional stress on the correctional facilities in small counties like Union County. He explained that the Union County Correctional Facility, which has 36 beds, is already overcrowded. The release of additional criminals from state prisons would only make the situation worse and result in the UCCF having to release inmates early because those from state prison would often end up in local custody.

“(HB 3149) would put the state problem back on the local level. It would burden the local system,” Thompson said.

Thompson noted that House Bill 3194 would also scale back Measure 57, which, among other things, provides mandatory sentencing for people who repeatedly commit property crimes like burglary and identify theft. Thompson said that without Measure 57 it is very hard to send people to state prison for repeat property crimes. He also said it is hard to send people to state prison for repeat drug crimes without Measure 57. Before Measure 57 the only people who were sent to state prison for drug crimes were major manufacturers and dealers. 

Thompson said Legislators want to trim back the two measures because they have put so many offenders in prison that if nothing changes the state may be forced to build another correctional facility to address overcrowding. Thompson believes this is the wrong approach to have. 

“It is bad public policy to make a decision impacting public safety based purely on dollars,” Thompson said. “To change it based purely on dollars is short sighted.”