The Contribution of Prisons to Public Safety


The following testimony was presented by Crime Victims United President Steve Doell to the Joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety on March 5, 2007.

My name is Steve Doell and I am testifying before you today as the president of Crime Victims United and the co-victim of a violent crime.

We have heard and will hear a lot about the cost of prisons. Today I'd like to discuss something that is often overlooked or dismissed - the benefits of prisons. But first let's take a quick look back to see how we got to where we are today.

From 1960 through 1985, Oregon's violent crime rate rose year after year for a total increase of nearly 700 percent. During this period, the response of Oregon government was to build one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds.

From 1985 through 1995, our violent crime rate remained roughly flat near historic highs.

In November of 1994, voters passed Measure 11 which set mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes and serious sex offenses.

From 1995 through 2002, Oregon's violent crime rate dropped every year. We started with 522 reported violent index crimes per 100,000 residents in 1995 and ended with 292 in 2002. Our violent crime rate decreased a total of 44 percent while the national rate decreased 28 percent. During this period, Oregon had the largest decrease in violent crime rate of any state in the country. Since 2002, Oregon's violent crime rate has remained at the lower level.

Relative to the 1995 violent crime rate, we now have a savings of approximately 8,000 reported violent crimes per year. Since 1995 this savings adds up to about 66,000 fewer violent crimes.

Some people dismiss the connection between declining violent crime rates and increased incarceration on the grounds that violent crime rates decreased all over America. For example, a prominent Oregon prisoner advocate was recently quoted in the Register-Guard as saying "There is recognition that our current state strategy hasn't made us any safer." This view can not explain why Oregon led the country in violent crime decrease from 1995 to 2002. It also ignores the fact that nearly every state reacted to soaring crime with increased incarceration. In the 1990's, thirty-three states increased time served for violent crimes. In addition, twenty-three states implemented three-strikes laws. And according the RAND Corporation report on Measure 11, by 1994 all 50 states implemented some form of minimum mandatory sentencing, making Oregon the very last state to do so.


Register-Guard, January 28, 2007

RAND Corporation Report on Measure 11

There is plenty of research that debunks the theory that increased incarceration had nothing to do with decreasing violent crime rates.

Two leading academic criminologists, William Spelman from the University of Texas, and Richard Rosenfeld from the University of Missouri-St. Louis, independently estimated that increased incarceration was responsible for 25 percent of the national drop in violent crime. In Oregon this translates to a savings of 2,000 reported violent index crimes per year attributable to increased incarceration. Considering the usual antipathy of academics to incarceration and the fact that Oregon led the nation in violent crime decrease, it is our opinion that the actual number in Oregon is considerably higher and that this estimate represents a lower bound on the number of violent crimes avoided per year. And 2,000 violent crimes prevented per year is nothing to sneeze at.


Urban Institute Paper

The Oregon Prison Population Forecast says that 3,700 prison beds are filled because of Measure 11. That's 3,700 armed robbers, kidnappers, child molesters, rapists, drunk drivers who maimed and killed people, attempted murders, murderers and other violent criminals who are in prison instead of on our streets because of Measure 11. It is impossible to say exactly how many crimes don't occur because these criminals are in prison. But we can say that in 1995, Oregon had 16,408 reported violent crimes including 129 murders and manslaughters while in 2002, despite increased state population, we had 10,208 reported violent crimes including 72 murders and manslaughters.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) 2007 Report to the Legislature says that, for each inmate added in 1995, about 28 crimes were avoided. In 2005 about 11 crimes were avoided for each additional inmate. The average over that period is about 20 crimes avoided each year for each additional inmate. This estimate covers all prisoners, not just Measure 11 prisoners and all crimes, not just reported crimes. From July of 1995 to July of 2005, Oregon added about 5,500 inmates. According to the CJC analysis, this should translate to about 110,000 avoided crimes per year.


Oregon Prison Population Forecast

CJC 2007 Report (Graph 14, page 10)

The CJC 2007 Report also says that we can expect a 3.4 percent decrease in the violent crime rate and a 2.6 percent decrease in the overall crime rate for every 10 percent increase in incarceration. Since 1995 we have had approximately 10 ten percent increases as Oregon's incarceration rate went from 206 inmates per 100,000 residents in 1995 to 531 inmates per 100,000 residents in 2005. Thus the CJC model attributes a 34 percent decrease in violent crime and a 26 percent decrease in overall crime to increased incarceration.


CJC 2007 Report (page 10)

From 1995 to 2005, Oregon added 5,500 inmates and our incarceration rate increased by 150 percent. According to a Register-Guard article (January 28, 2007), "in the past decade, Oregon has had the third fastest growing prison system in the nation." And yet, with all that prison system growth, as of 2005 Oregon ranked not in the top ten and not even in the top half of states, but 34th among states in incarceration rate. According to the CJC, Oregon's prison population is 5,000 inmates short of the national average incarceration rate. How is this possible after all of our prison system growth? The answer lies in where we started. In 1995, we ranked 42nd among states in incarceration rate. With no prison system growth, Oregon would now rank dead last among states in incarceration rate. All we have done is to catch up with what the rest of the country did before us in response to out-of-control crime.

As of 2005, Oregon ranked 34th in violent crime rate. If our violent crime rate had remained what it was in 1995, our state would rank 16th1.

Despite all this growth, the vast majority of convicted felons in Oregon do not go to prison. We recently received figures from the CJC stating that, in 2006, only 21 percent of convicted felons received prison sentences. So those who call for use of "alternative sanctions" can take comfort in the knowledge that we already make massive use of them.

[My original testimony said that in 2005, only 16 percent of convicted felons received prison sentences. This statement was based on a letter that the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission sent us in early 2007. We accurately quoted the CJC letter. On May 10th the CJC informed us that the figure they provided was incorrect. They were unable to give us a corrected figure for 2005 but did report that in 2006, 21 percent of convicted felons received prison sentences.]

70 percent of Oregon prisoners were convicted of crimes against persons, 15 percent are property offenders, mostly repeat and repeat-repeat property offenders, 10 percent are drug manufacturers and/or dealers and the remaining 5 percent are classified as "statute" or "other". No one is in an Oregon prison solely for using drugs.

People often point to the cost of Oregon's prisons as an argument in favor of changing course. It is true that prisons are costly. Education is also costly. Health care is also costly. In fact they are far more costly than prisons. But only in the case of prisons do people cite the costs as if there were no benefits. I've talked about the benefits of incarceration in terms of reduced victimization. Now I'd like to take a quick look at the financial benefits of incarceration.

The CJC report discusses the economic savings to taxpayers and victims from adding an inmate. In 1995 they report a savings of $3.31 for each additional dollar spent. In 2005 this figure is $1.03. This is the marginal savings which reflects just the savings from an additional inmate, not the higher savings from the incarceration of the base inmates.

The CJC was not able to give a savings breakdown for Oregon violent versus property drug offenders. However the report cited a Washington State study which found a savings of $8.20 in 1995 and $4.30 in 2005 for each dollar spent incarcerating an additional violent criminal. Again, this is on top of the base savings associated with the base prison population. The CJC report indicates that "there are many similarities between Oregon and Washington that make these estimates seem reasonable for Oregon." Since 70 percent of Oregon inmates were convicted of crimes against people, it is clear that Oregon has put its money where it brings the greatest economic savings.

Exclusive of the Community Corrections budget, which is not spent on prisons, the Governor's 2007-2009 DOC budget breaks down to about $150 dollars per Oregonian per year. This is not a trivial amount of money, though it is less than most Oregonians spend for automobile insurance or cable television. But it is dwarfed by the total cost of crime. According to a landmark 1996 study by the National Institute of Justice, crime cost "$105 billion annually in property and productivity losses and outlays for medical expenses. This amounts to an annual 'crime tax' of roughly $425 per man, woman, and child in the United States. When the values of pain, long-term emotional trauma, disability, and risk of death are put in dollar terms, the costs rise to $450 billion annually (or $1,800 per person)." Accounting for inflation would make these figures grow to about $621 and $2484 respectively. These figures represent the cost to each citizen outside of tax payments for law enforcement, incarceration, and other criminal justice system costs.


National Institute of Justice Paper

In addition to keeping people in prison, our tax money spent for incarceration can ironically keep people out of prison. Deterrence is a well known mechanism though quantifying it is difficult. But there is another, almost universally-ignored mechanism. A paper by Flores, Latessa and others lists the "big four" criminogenic risk factors as criminal history, antisocial attitudes, personality and "associates". In other words, who you hang out with has a significant impact on whether you engage in crime. The 5,500 inmates added from 1995 to 2005 represent 5,500 criminogenic risk factors removed from our society. There is no escaping the conclusion that keeping these people in prison contributes to keeping others out of prison.


"Evidence of Professionalism or Quackery: Measuring Practitioner Awareness of Risk/Need Factors and Effective Treatment Strategies"

Considering the human and economic costs and benefits of incarceration, my message is that Oregonians are getting an invaluable return on their public safety investment.

There are two ways to reduce the prison population. One is to simply release more prisoners. The other is to further reduce crime. The first leads to increased victimization. The second leads to decreased victimization. It took decades for violent crime rates to reach the peaks of the early 1990's, decades during which acceptance of and excuses for criminality steadily grew. We should not be surprised if it takes decades to undo the damage and we should recognize that we have made a good start.

As stated in Article I, Section 15 of the Oregon Constitution, the foundation principles of Oregon criminal law are protection of society, personal responsibility, accountability for one's actions and reformation. To make continued progress in reducing crime, we will need these values to penetrate our broader society as well as our criminal justice system. This will not be easy nor will it be quickly achieved. Oregon's political leaders can show the way by unfailing adherence to these principles.

Oregon's prison population growth has principally been driven by longer sentences for violent and repeat property criminals. This trend is a reflection of the values of Oregon voters as repeatedly demonstrated at the polls.

Oregon's projected prison population growth for the next biennium is 4.2 percent which is far lower than previous biennia. This indicates that Oregon is trending toward an equilibrium where our criminal justice policies have caught up with the mandate from the voters.

Although some have characterized this as an unintended, uninformed, ill-advised or foolish mandate, in fact an examination of the human and financial costs and benefits shows that it is merely common sense and reflects the obligation that law-abiding Oregonians feel for the safety of their fellow law-abiding citizens. This is something that all Oregonians, including the legislators and public servants who implement the mandate, should be proud of.


1. Our hypothetical rank was quoted as 13th in the original testimony. This was in error. The correct hypothetical rank is 16th.