Prison Sentencing and Politics

A 12-member commission is wrestling with costly mandatory minimum jail sentences, while one incumbent senator is being grilled for supporting early-release legislation.If you want to understand some of the political issues around prison sentencing reform, look no further than House Bill 3508, which passed in the 2009 legislature.

The legislation is still making waves in current political campaigns, including the East Multnomah County race between Democratic incumbent Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson and her Republican challenger, Scott Hansen.

Some prognosticators believe the Monnes Anderson/Hansen race could go either way and, if it turns Republican, it could change the balance of power in the Senate where Democrats currently hold a 16-14 edge.

If you go back and read HB 3508, its 29 pages are hard to decipher. But it passed by clear majorities in both the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor Ted Kulongoski. In general, the bill revised a number of statutes with the effect of reducing the time some prisoners serve in state prison. And that has become fodder for political ads aimed at Monnes Anderson for supporting increased "good time" provisions for certain offenders, which meant they got out of prison earlier.

The Leadership Fund, run by Senate Republicans, sent out a mailer to voters in East Multnomah County, describing Monnes Anderson as friendly to violent criminals.  "Would you have voted to let violent criminals out of jail early?  Senator Laurie Monnes Anderson did …" reads one side of the mailer, which features corrections bars. The flip side explains in some detail how she voted to give "criminals, some of them violent, a chance to get out of jail before they served their full sentences."

On a different level, prison sentencing policies made headlines this week when members of the Prison Sentencing Commission, appointed by Governor Kitzhaber, were interviewed by The Oregonian. Here's what veteran investigative reporter Les Zaitz wrote about the issue:

"For months, 12 Oregonians have been wrestling with the mathematics of justice in Oregon — who's going to prison, who's falling off probation, what percentage of new inmates are ‘low risk’ or 'nonviolent.'  

"One number matters most: $600 million. That's the estimated cost to taxpayers of continued growth in Oregon's prison population. Avoiding that means sending fewer people to prison. So how does the state contain costs yet keep citizens safer?

"That's the vexing puzzle that's been handed to the state Commission on Public Safety. Members face a year-end deadline to offer detailed reforms to Gov. John Kitzhaber. What they come up with could affect everything from Measure 11 to marijuana sentences.

"State forecasters say a growing population and tougher sentencing measures will add 2,300 people to Oregon's inmate count in the next decade. Changing that, the data suggest, will require backing off on sentences, sparing more people from prison, and spending more to keep offenders from committing new crimes."

Legislators in the 2013 session will face a new set of reforms advocated by Kitzhaber, who already has put a full plate before legislators — health care reform, education reform, early learning reform. Will the 90 legislators who show up in Salem next January be able to take on the prison sentencing challenge that, beyond most others, could threaten to become a campaign issue in 2014?

Sentencing is not a simple issue, but the risk is that it could get translated as letting prisoners out early, as has been the politics around HB 3508. This time around, depending on what the Sentencing Commission recommends, the questions may revolve around how long prisoners are sentenced in the first place or changing the mix on parole and probation supervision. 

Sentencing Reform Commission member Dick Withnell of Salem told The Oregonian: "I'm a lock-em-up-and-throw-the-key-away guy, but when you start peeling the onion, that's not the answer."

Oregon Supreme Court Associate Justice Paul DeMuniz, who chairs the commission, agrees. He suggests it may be possible for the most serious Measure 11 crimes to remain intact, but to give judges discretion to modify sentences for less serious Measure 11 offenses.

What will end up before the legislature is not clear yet.  There appears to be disagreement among the 12 commission members about what to do and how to do it. Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote has been quoted as saying the current prison sentencing system has been successful and does not need radical change. He also got right to the heart of what could be the end-game political issue when he said the commission was operating with flawed data that indicated some offenders were low risk when, in fact, they were violent criminals and should be kept behind bars.

Don’t lock 'em up vs. pay more money to do so. A tough issue for legislators, and they know how they vote could become a campaign issue in 2014.