What Needs to Change in Oregon’s Criminal Justice System
As Oregonians, we are concerned about the ever-increasing size, cost, and ineffectiveness of our criminal justice system. From the mid–1990s through the following decade, Oregon’s prison system has been among the fastest growing in the country. This has cost billions of dollars for both construction and operation.
Each time Oregon builds a prison, it borrows the money, mortgaging the state’s ability to pay for vital services over the next 20 to 25 years. This trend is alarming especially because it has been at the expense of programs proven to reduce future crime at a fraction of the cost of building more prisons. Cuts to drug and alcohol treatment, prison-based education and juvenile intervention programs have actually reduced the state’s ability to maintain public safety. Because over 95% of all state prisoners will eventually return to the community, it is in everyone’s best interest to create a system that actually prepares people to succeed when they return home.
We are also concerned with the lack of attention and funding for support services for crime survivors. Services for victims of domestic and sexual violence are funded at less than half the amount that’s needed to provide the most basic emergency services to everyone in need. Likewise, funding for system-based Victim Assistance Providers is inadequate, and crime victims pay the price. Crime victims have rights in the justice system, but these rights are not always enforced. People who have survived crime deserve better – survivors deserve to be treated with respect and receive accurate information, restitution, and culturally-competent services to help them rebuild their lives.
We believe it is time for a more effective and fiscally-responsible approach to public safety – an approach that focuses on prevention, curbs the unsustainable growth of our prison system, invests in evidence-based programs that are proven to reduce crime and save money, and strengthens support systems and services for crime survivors. Crime and public safety are complicated social issues and we need smart solutions not oversimplified approaches promoted by fear or frustration.
Partnership for Safety and Justice works hard to ensure our values drive our work. And we search for policies that embody all of our values simultaneously. We strive to ensure Oregon’s approach to public safety is based on the principles of safety, prevention, accountability, healing, rehabilitation, and justice.
Goals & Strategies
First and foremost, we seek measurable, progressive change to the criminal justice system and a more balanced approach to public safety. Specifically, we work to:
- Support safe and sensible sentencing reform that reduces Oregon’s over-reliance on incarceration and shifts government spending toward more cost-effective and prevention-oriented public safety strategies, particularly strategies that help people impacted by crime rebuild their lives.
- Strengthen state and local services that provided needed support for crime survivors and victims.
- Change how Oregon treats youth as adults within the criminal justice system.
- Promote the adoption of a new, holistic public safety paradigm among advocates and system stakeholders across the country that moves beyond sides and focuses on policies best equipped to build safe and healthy communities.
To achieve these ends and create long-term, sustainable change, we believe it is essential to work with, and build the leadership and power of, those most directly affected by the criminal justice system. We also recognize that structural racism underlies and drives criminal justice policies in the U.S. and we are committed to prioritizing work that engages and serves communities of color that are disproportionately affected by both crime and over-incarceration.
We believe that a single strategy is unlikely to create and sustain the kinds of social change we are working towards. Therefore, we focus on a range of strategies including public education and professional advocacy. More specifically, we do the following:
- Build coalitions and alliances with other groups and organizations who support our policy goals;
- Engage in direct advocacy with policymakers and organizing campaigns;
- Provide education, training, and leadership development to our members to increase their effectiveness as grassroots policy advocates and organizers; and
- Produce well-researched print and electronic materials as tools to mobilize broader public support for reform and to inform and educate the public, the press, policymakers, and our members.
Partnership for Safety and Justice has four distinct programs:
Safety and Sentencing Program: This program promotes approaches to public safety that help foster safe communities, are fiscally responsible, and reduce our over-reliance on prisons. This program promotes safe and sensible sentencing reform (with a special focus on youth), as well as proven and effective alternatives to incarceration.
Myths and Facts
Myth: Measure 11 is responsible for the drop in crime Oregon experienced in the 1990s and the following decade.
Fact: Measure 11 is a set of mandatory minimum sentences for a range of person-to-person crimes passed via ballot measure in 1994. Oregon’s tough-on-crime advocates suggest Measure 11 is responsible for the drop in Oregon’s crime rate experienced in the 1990s and beyond. Upon closer examination, it is easy to disprove their claims.
First, crime rates across the country began trending downward in the mid-1990s. When comparing incarceration rates and crime rates from a number of states like Oregon, California, Washington, and New York between 1995 and 2002, all four states experienced similar reductions in crime while Oregon more than tripled the incarceration rate of the other three states. So other states were seeing declines in crime during that same period without the dramatic increase in incarceration caused by Measure 11.
Measure 11 advocates argue that Measure 11 is effective because it keeps “serious offenders” off the streets and prevents them from committing more crime. This incapacitation argument just doesn’t add up. “People convicted of the types of crime affected by Measure 11 were already subject to substantial prison terms under the old sentencing guidelines. An incapacitation effect, if any, wouldn’t kick in until after the point when these prisoners would have been released if they had been sentenced under the old system. But Oregon’s rate of violent crime began to decline immediately following the onset of Measure 11, too soon to have been triggered by the harsher sentencing requirements,” says Judy Greene from Justice Strategies.
To better understand the limited impact of Measure 11 on crime reduction read “Crime Trends and Incarceration Rates in Oregon,” a report by Justice Strategies.
Myth: Increasing incarceration rates is the most effective way to reduce crime.
Fact: Crime is a complicated social dynamic that increases and decreases based on a variety of factors. Research shows that increasing incarceration rates has only a limited impact on reducing crime. Also, the usefulness of incarceration has a point of diminishing returns. In other words, states can over-incarcerate to the point where the cost of incarceration outweighs the return in crime reduction.
Studies of the national drop in crime rates over the past fifteen years have pointed to a variety of factors – from the growth of the economy in the 1990s, to changes in drug markets and trends in drug use, to shifts in policing strategies.
Further complicating things, a study of incarceration rates and crime in the U.S. from 1991 to 1998 showed that states with lower than average incarceration rates experienced a larger reduction in crime than states with higher than average incarceration rates.
More information on this topic can be found by reading “Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship” by the Sentencing Project.
Myth: Crime seems to be getting worse and more pervasive.
Fact: It seems like every time you turn on the local nightly news on television the “news stories” focus on crime and more crime. Mainstream news media provides an unrealistic view of actual crime trends. The adage “if it bleeds, it leads” refers to an common editorial framework that suggests crime is something people want to hear about. So local press coverage places a heavy emphasis on reporting crime, while focusing on individual stories and spending almost no attention to discussing crime trends in a social or historical context. The result of such problematic coverage is deep misunderstanding among the public of the realities of crime.
In 2009, Oregon is experiencing nearly 30 year lows in our overall crime rate which is a similar trend around the country.
For more information visit the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission’s website or the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Myth: Building prisons is a useful rural economic development strategy.
Fact: Oregon Business Magazine’s April 2008 cover story, “PRISONTOWN MYTH: The promise of prosperity hasn’t come true for Oregon’s rural communities” exposes the truth about the economic impact that the 1990s prison expansion has had on Oregon’s rural communities.
Despite promises that Oregon’s Department of Corrections (DOC) made to Oregon’s rural counties about the economic benefits that locating a prison in their community would have, “Employment and income numbers indicate that Oregon’s massive investment in prison expansion has brought local gains that are modest at best. The rural counties that gambled biggest on large prisons after the passage of Measure 11, Malheur and Umatilla, have continued to struggle.”
In a significant reversal for DOC, Max Williams, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections who was appointed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in January 2004, says it is a misnomer to think of prisons as an engine of economic development.
“We are not a profit center,” says Williams. “We are a cost center. We’re taking tax dollars that could be spent on a whole variety of things, and we’re spending them on prisons.”
The Oregon-based research that shows prison construction as a failed economic development strategy mirrors research from around the country.
Crime Survivor Program: This program is dedicated to promoting progressive responses to the needs of crime survivors. We are building a base of crime survivors who advocate for a system focused on prevention, offender accountability, and assistance to help survivors rebuild their lives.
Youth Justice: Partnership for Safety and Justice believes that public safety is best served when youth in trouble are held accountable and given the services they need to succeed in the juvenile justice system rather than the adult criminal justice system. Our Youth Justice Campaign works to combat the laws that automatically try, sentence and imprison youth in our adult system.
Justice Reinvestment: Increasing amounts of our public safety dollars go towards prisons, while we are under-funding the programs best equipped to effectively address and prevent crime. PSJ works to invest more in life-saving victim services, addiction treatment, mental health services and re-entry programs for a more effective approach to building safe and healthy communities.