Why Is This Important?

In the past decade, Oregon’s prison population has grown by nearly 50 percent to more than 14,000 inmates. Taxpayers spend more than $1.3 billion each biennium on corrections. Without action, the state projects its prison population will grow by another 2,000 beds. This prison growth – fueled mostly by nonviolent offenders – will cost taxpayers an additional $600 million dollars over the next decade. The state budget is a zero-sum proposition. As Oregon taxpayers dedicate more of their funds to prison, other

Goal of This Initiative

Curb spending on prisons while improving public safety by investing in proven, effective, and affordable methods of reducing crime.

Recent Work

In May 2012, following a request from legislative leadership, Governor Kitzhaber charged the Commission on Public Safety, a bipartisan, inter-branch task force, with analyzing Oregon’s sentencing and corrections data, auditing existing policies, and submitting recommendations that will protect public safety, hold offenders accountable, and contain corrections costs.

The Commission includes legislators from both parties and chambers as well as practitioners from the criminal justice system, including judges, a district attorney, a member of the defense bar, a community corrections director, a sheriff, a public member, and the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections

The Commission noted the following factors pertinent to Oregon’s opportunities to spend corrections dollars more effectively:

  • Although crime has declined in Oregon, states such as New York, Maryland, and New Jersey have achieved comparable or greater crime declines while reducing their incarceration rates.
  • Like most states, Oregon still sends the majority of its felony offenders to probation rather than prison. But since 2000, Oregon has increased by 18 percent the share of convicted felons sentenced to prison. This change is driven almost entirely by increasing use of prison for nonviolent offenders.
  • Oregon’s imprisonment rate is still well below the national average. However, since 2000, the state’s imprisonment rate has grown almost 4 times faster than the national incarceration rate.
  •  Since 2000, we have admitted increasing percentages of offenders convicted of nonviolent offenses (up 11 percent as a share of admissions), including offenders revoked for violating the terms of their community supervision (up 27 percent as a share of admissions).
  • Offenders are staying in prison longer in 2011 than at any other point in the last decade. Length of stay for drug offenses is up 22 percent since 2000 and length of stay for technical violations for probation is up 20 percent since 2000.
  •  Finally, Oregon stands to lose ground on its enormous achievements in recidivism reduction, as we invest less and less of our resources into evidence-based practices in community corrections. Many counties face significant shortfalls in the sanctions and services they need to hold offenders accountable at the local level. These shortfalls pose a real and pressing threat to reducing recidivism and victimization.


Oregon must ensure that there are enough prison beds for serious and violent offenders, ensure we have the dollars needed to protect public safety in our communities and invest in prevention, and stop corrections costs from eating up more and more of the state budget.

Business leaders agree with the Public Safety Commission’s philosophy that costly prison beds should be reserved for violent offenders and person-to-person crimes, and that Measure 11’s mandatory minimum sentences should be targeted more narrowly to crimes involving death, serious physical injury, or sexual contact to the victim. Implemented competently, smarter sentencing policies would save hundreds of millions of dollars over the decade with no appreciable change in crime.

Indicators of Success

• Crime rates continue to decline.
• Recidivism rates continue to decline.
• Oregon curbs corrections spending growth (including per capita spending on prisons).
• Oregon curbs inmate population growth.
• Oregon balances public safety spending between prisons and local public safety priorities like community supervision, law enforcement, and victim services.

The Agenda for 2013 and Beyond

The 2013 Legislature should adopt the recommendations of the Public Safety Commission, which are expected to be issued in January 2013. The immediate outcome of these reforms should be to prevent the need to bond for and build a new prison beds in the 2013-2015 biennium.

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