Open Letter to Former State Representative Greg Macpherson:

Oregon Budget Priorities

May 15, 2012

Dear Mr. Macpherson:

On March 22 I received your newsletter via email with an article entitled "Lawmakers Debate Budget Priorities - Education Can Help Keep Us Safe". I recognized in your newsletter a narrative called "smart on crime" which proposes that we could be safer if we divert money from prisons and spend it on other programs. I feel that this narrative and the discussion that surrounds it have some fatal flaws. As I will demonstrate below:

      They minimize the seriousness of the crimes for which people land in Oregon prisons

      They minimize the public safety gains that we have achieved through a balanced criminal justice policy that combines community corrections with appropriate incarceration

      They exaggerate the effectiveness of alternatives to incarceration

      They promote the erroneous idea that Oregon is a high-incarceration state

Over the years I have seen the "smart on crime" narrative in your newsletter several times so I decided to try to make you aware of evidence for a contrary view.

While working on a letter, which I planned to send only to you, I became aware that your newsletter article had appeared in the Lake Oswego Review on February 24 and on your web page. Based on that, we at Crime Victims United decided that the appropriate response was our own op-ed in the Lake Oswego Review. But my original letter was 1,500 words and the Review limits op-ed's to 550 words.

It took us a while to rework the letter into op-ed form but it finally ran on May 10 and I posted a version of it, with references for statements of fact, on the Crime Victims United web page http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/issues/corrections/macpherson.htm.

Since there was much more in my letter than I was able to include in the op-ed, here I present the rest of the story.

Incarceration in Oregon - Historical Context

Your February 24 newsletter article, "Lawmakers Debate Budget Priorities" and op-ed, repeat a popular narrative. But the narrative falls apart when placed in full historical context.

You wrote:

Prison spending is often compared with spending on higher education. As Oregon's prison population more than doubled in the last two decades, state spending on prisons surpassed its budget for higher ed, one of only six states where that is the case.

It is true that Oregon's prison population has more than doubled. But readers need to know the context in which this occurred:

      Oregon refused to build new prisons for more than two decades. From 1960 to 1985, while our violent crime rate rose 690 percent, Oregon built one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds[1]. This graph shows Oregon's violent crime rate and, along the top axis, the construction of new prisons. Note the period between 1960 and 1985:


The 25-year failure to respond to skyrocketing violent crime was a dereliction of duty on the part of Oregon's government and a reflection of the "smart on crime" thinking of that era. This is what necessitated the spate of prison construction in the late 1980's and 1990's.

      Oregon's violent crime rate has fallen by more than 50% since 1995. This is the second largest decrease in crime rate among all states since 1995[2].

      Even after more than doubling the prison population, as of 2010, Oregon ranked just 33rd among states in incarceration rate[3]. This hardly suggests that Oregon has gone overboard on incarceration.

      Even after more than doubling the prison population, more than 70 percent of felony criminals are kept in the community on probation or local control, not sent to prison[4].

Your statements that "Oregon's prison population has more than doubled in the last two decades", that "state spending on prisons surpassed its budget for higher ed" and that Oregon is "one of only six states where that is the case" imply that Oregon has gone overboard on incarceration. However, our 33rd rank in incarceration rate shows that this implication is wrong.

Prisons Versus Education

You wrote:

For every $1.00 it spends on higher education, Oregon spends $1.30 on prisons.

Normally I would not think that this comparison merits extensive discussion, but because of its centrality to the "smart on crime" narrative, we need to examine it.

I'm not sure where it is written that we should spend more on higher education than prisons. In a perfect world we would spend nothing on prisons but that's not the world we live in.

Public safety is and has always been a core mission of government. It is also something that citizens can not, for the most part, do for themselves. By contrast, Americans have sent their children to college for centuries without government involvement. Taxpayer funding of higher education may be a noble endeavor but it is not a core mission of government.

Even if you accept that this comparison is some kind of indictment of our priorities, the facts and context bear closer scrutiny.

Comparing higher education and prison spending requires going through the state budget and deciding what parts of education funding should be counted and what parts of the Department of Corrections budget should be counted. This may sound simple, but if you try it, as I have, you will find that it is hardly a clear-cut matter. I believe that, if you compare all higher education to the prison component of the Department of Corrections budget, you will find that we spend more on higher education than on prisons.

To the typical Oregon taxpayer "higher education" means "post K-12". The U.S. Department of Education calls is "postsecondary education[5]." This includes the Oregon University System, Community Colleges, the Student Assistance Commission, and parts of OHSU. I wonder if you counted all of these programs in your comparison. If you did not, I think your comparison is flawed.

The prison component of the DOC budget excludes Community Corrections, about $200 million per biennium[6]. I wonder if you counted Community Corrections in your comparison. If you did, I think your comparison is flawed.

By the way, Oregon spends over $200 million per biennium on health services and treatment for prisoners[7]. These are not the types of expenditures people think of when they hear "prison". And some of these funds would be expended anyway if the prisoners where in the community.

The comparison between prison spending and higher education and between Oregon and other states is intended to lead readers to the conclusion that Oregon has gone overboard on incarceration. But they should be apprised of the true reasons why Oregon's prison spending is high relative to other states, if in fact it is.

In 2010, Oregon spent $84 per prisoner per day[8]. That same year, Idaho spent $52.22 per prisoner per day[9]. Bringing our costs in line with Idaho would save roughly $400 million dollars per biennium. The fact is, if Oregon spends more than other states, it is not because we have a high incarceration rate - as of 2010 Oregon's incarceration rate was 24 percent lower than Idaho's[10] - but rather because we have a high cost structure. Thus the implication of your comparison between prisons and higher ed is wrong.

If the taxpayers of Oregon want to provide better health care to prisoners than other states or if they want to pay corrections workers better than other states, then I have no quarrel with that decision. But the cost of this generosity should not be attributed to a high level of incarceration because Oregon has a comparatively low incarceration rate.

"Misconduct?"

You wrote:

Misconduct that causes incarceration would not be remedied in the short term by more spent on higher ed because criminals would not go to university campuses instead of prison.

You don't go to prison in Oregon for "misconduct". You go to prison for serious crimes. 70 percent of Oregon's inmates are serving time for crimes against people[11]. Aggravated assault, robbery, kidnapping, child molestation, rape, manslaughter, murder . . . the correct term is "crime", not "misconduct".

Of those inmates who are not violent criminals or sex offenders, most are repeat-repeat property criminals, drug manufacturers and drug dealers. In Oregon you typically have to be convicted five times for typical street-level heroin dealing before prison enters the picture (crime seriousness level 6 on the sentencing guidelines grid[12]).

The fact is, if Oregon spends more than other states, it is not because we are incarcerating petty criminals or drug users. To go to prison in Oregon you need to commit a violent crime, a serious sex crime or repeatedly commit "less serious" crimes such as burglary, identity theft and drug dealing.

The Impact of Budget Decisions on Life in 2030

You wrote:

The problem with trading prison spending off against spending on primary education is the difference in time line. Paying for a prison bed addresses public safety today because the inmate who occupies that bed can't victimize the public while behind bars.

By contrast, paying for smaller class sizes or for remedial tutoring addresses public safety years from now. The Third Grader who falls behind in reading today is the potential criminal of 2030.

I will not dwell on the constant pitting of the public safety budget against education as if other local, state and federal budget items do not also compete with education for funding. (The $1 billion statewide increase in PERS payments just this biennium[13], the millions of dollars in fraudulent unemployment benefits paid out[14], or the money wasted on boondoggles like the biosciences corridor[15], dubious alternative energy "investments[16]", Lake Oswego's West End building, and a streetcar from Lake Oswego to Portland[17], come to mind.)

I will, however, direct your attention to the cost savings accruing from Oregon's voter-mandated public safety strategies, something that is routinely ignored by the proponents of the "smart on crime" narrative.

There is evidence that Oregon's incarceration saves more money than it costs. In 2007 the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) submitted a report[18] to the Oregon Legislature. It showed that in 2005 Washington State saved $4.35 for every dollar spent incarcerating a violent criminal and indicated that this estimate seemed reasonable for Oregon also.

The CJC has estimated that Oregon prevents 100,000 crimes of all types every year due to increased incarceration relative to the 1995 level[19]. Since 1995, well over 1,000,000 crimes have been prevented because of increased incarceration, based on the CJC's figure.

It would be good if the CJC would quantify the savings to Oregonians from prevention of well over 1,000,000 crimes but to date they have declined to do so. I therefore leave it as a matter for your consideration.

Furthermore, relative to the 1995 crime rate, Oregon has had roughly 100,000 fewer violent "index" crimes from 1996 to the present[20]. We don't attribute all of this to increased incarceration but we do believe that it had a substantial impact.

The "index" crimes, which are the crimes counted toward the official violent crime rate, are aggravated assault, robbery, forcible rape and non-negligent homicide (manslaughter and murder).

Many sex crimes, including the majority of child molestation crimes, are not forcible rapes and therefore are not counted in this 100,000 number. This means that, in addition to having 100,000 fewer violent index crimes, Oregon has, in all likelihood, had many fewer non-index sex crimes. Again, we don't attribute all of this to increased incarceration but we do believe that it had a substantial impact.

By the year 2030, Oregon will have prevented millions of crimes and hundreds of thousands of violent crimes largely through criminal justice policies resisted by politicians but mandated by the voters. Hundreds of thousands of Oregonians will have been spared victimization. Many thousands of Oregon schoolchildren who would have been victims of crime had the prisoners been on the street will have been spared by 2030 because of our responsible use of incarceration. They say that prison is a "school for crime." I believe that thousands of additional children would have been recruited into crime had those professors been on the street instead of in prison.

I hope our lawmakers will keep these facts in mind when thinking about the impact of their decisions on life in 2030.

Au Contraire, Oregon is a Model for Other States

The fact that Oregon's prison population has more-than doubled since the voters mandated a change of direction in 1994 is cited as evidence that Oregon has gone off the deep end with incarceration. However, Oregon's incarceration rate rank, 33rd among states in 2010, belies that narrative.

To put this false narrative into perspective, consider the testimony of Jake Horowitz of the Pew Center on the States. Mr. Horowitz is a national expert in state-to-state comparative criminal justice and is the point man for Pew's anti-incarceration program. Speaking at an Oregon legislative hearing[21] on February 15th, 2010, Mr. Horowitz said:

A lot of good things going on in Oregon:

      Large decreases in crime and a comparatively low violent crime rate,

      Legislative endorsement of evidence-based practices,

      Mandate for administrative sanctioning and community supervision including
      probation and parole,

      Solid data and research on which to ground debates on these policies,

      and overall a modest incarceration rate

. . .

And it is nationally viewed that Oregon has made good use of probation and parole and has largely prioritized its prison space for violent offenders as opposed to lower-level drug and property offenders. [emphasis added]

Yesterday the governer issued a press release[22] in which a legislator is quoted as saying "Relying on incarceration alone is unsustainable." I don't know who she thinks is relying on incarceration alone but it sure isn't Oregon. Her comment bears no resemblance to reality.

Oregon criminal justice over the last two decades has been an amazing success story but you would never know it from the narrative that has currency at the Legislature - the "smart on crime" narrative.

Education and Money

Finally, your newsletter article incorporates the implicit assumption that more spending on education will lead to better-educated students. If only it were that simple.

From 1970 to 2010, U.S. per-pupil, inflation-adjusted spending for education doubled. During that time, test scores have barely budged[23]:

Despite the highest spending in the world, or close to it[24], U.S. students are falling behind more motivated students from other parts of the world[25]. The problem is not lack of money.

From my personal experience and observations I have come to believe that educational success depends primarily on the attitude of the individual student. This attitude is the responsibility of the individual student and his or her parents. Shifting the focus to money encourages students and parents to blame others rather than taking responsibility themselves. This does not help students - it harms them.

In Conclusion

Mr. Macpherson, the narrative of your newsletter article, though commonly argued, is a false narrative. I hope that you, as well as legislators and other public officials, will stop repeating it or, at a minimum, acknowledge the historical context that led to increased incarceration, our state's low incarceration rate and high cost structure, and the enormous savings of blood and treasure resulting from the voters' decision to prioritize public safety.

Howard Rodstein
Crime Victims United Volunteer



[1] From 1960 to 1985, while Oregon's violent crime rate rose 690 percent, Oregon built one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics, Oregon DOC History. See http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/measure11/presentation/pdf/violent_crime_and_prisons.pdf.

[2] From 1960 to 1985, while Oregon's violent crime rate rose 690 percent, Oregon built one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics data. See http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/measure11/presentation/pdf/violent_crime_decrease_by_state.pdf.

[3] as of 2010, Oregon ranked just 33rd among states in incarceration rate. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics "Prisoners in 2010". See http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p10.pdf, Table 9, page 22.

[4] More than 70 percent of felony criminals are kept in the community on probation or local control, not sent to prison. Source: Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. See http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/issues/corrections/doc/dispositions2011.pdf.

[5] The U.S. Department of Education categorizes education as elementary, secondary education, and postsecondary education. See http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_ifn.pdf.

[6] The prison component of the DOC budget excludes Community Corrections, about $200 million per biennium. Source: Legislative Fiscal Office analysis, "Education Program Area and Public Safety Program Area". See http://www.leg.state.or.us/comm/lfo/2011-13/2011-13_csl_publicsafety.pdf.

[7] Oregon spends over $200 million per biennium on health services and treatment for prisoners. Source: Legislative Fiscal Office analysis, "Education Program Area and Public Safety Program Area". See http://www.leg.state.or.us/comm/lfo/correctional_spending_trends_2011.pdf, page 2.

[8] In 2010, Oregon spent $84 per prisoner per day. Source: "Report of the Reset Subcommittee on Public Safety, June 2010. See http://oregon.gov/CJC/docs/pubsafe_subcomreport_final.pdf, page 49.

[9] In 2010, Idaho spent $52.22 per prisoner per day. Source: Idaho Department of Corrections "Annual Report FY10". See http://www.idoc.idaho.gov/content/document/annual_report_fy10_0, page 4.

[10] As of 2010 Oregon's incarceration rate was 24 percent lower than Idaho's. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics "Prisoners in 2010". See http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/p10.pdf, Table 9, page 22.

[11] 70 percent of Oregon's inmates are serving time for crimes against people. Source: Oregon Department of Corrections. See http://www.oregon.gov/DOC/RESRCH/docs/POPREP.pdf.

[12] Street level drug dealing is crime seriousness level 6 on the Oregon Sentencing Guidelines grid. The presumptive sentence is probation for the first four convictions followed by a year in prison on the fifth conviction. See http://www.oregon.gov/CJC/GuidelinesGrid.pdf.

[13] Taxpayer funding of the Oregon Public Employee Retirement System increased by over $1 billion in the 2011-2013 biennium. Source: The Oregonian, September 24, 2010. See http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2010/09/oregon_pers_mailing_pension_ra.html.

[14] "Oregon overpaid more than $392 million in benefits, a U.S. Labor Department analysis shows." The Oregonian, October 28, 2011. See http://www.oregonlive.com/business/index.ssf/2011/10/oregon_overpays_392_million_in.html.

[15] The 2003 Oregon Legislature allocated millions of dollars to create a "biotech corridor" that was supposed to create a $1 billion industry in Oregon by 2006. It created a handful of jobs and was never heard from again. Source: The Oregonian, April 15, 2007, "Biosciences forecast: Back to reality".

[16] The Oregon Legislature gave out $140 million in tax breaks to dubious ventures. Source: The Oregonian, January 2, 2009, "Oregon exceptionally generous with green-energy subsidies". See http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2009/01/oregon_is_exceptionally_genero.html.

[17] The leaders of Lake Oswego and Portland planned to spend hundreds of millions of dollars to build a streetcar line between their cities until reality brought them to their senses. Source: The Oregonian, January 11, 2012, "Surprise shift on Lake Oswego council halts Portland streetcar project". See http://www.oregonlive.com/lake-oswego/index.ssf/2012/01/lake_oswego_councilors_bill_ti.html.

[18] Washington State saved $4.35 for every dollar spent incarcerating a violent criminal in 2005. In its 2007 report, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission indicated that Oregon's savings should be similar. See http://www.oregon.gov/CJC/docs/2007cjcreport.pdf, page 11, Table 3.

[19] The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission has estimated that Oregon prevents 100,000 crimes of all types every year due to increased incarceration relative to the 1995 level. Source: Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. See Source: http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/issues/corrections/doc/crimesprevented.pdf.

[20] Relative to the 1995 crime rate, Oregon has had roughly 100,000 fewer violent "index" crimes from 1995 to the present. Source: Bureau of Justice Statistics data. See Source: http://www.crimevictimsunited.org/measure11/presentation/pdf/violent_crime_savings.pdf.

[21] To hear the audio, go to http://www.leg.state.or.us/listn/, click 2010 "Special Session" and then "Archives of Committee Meetings from the 2010 Special Session", then "Judiciary", then "02/15/2010". The passage quoted starts at 10:25 into the hearing.

[22] Governor Kitzhaber's May 14, 2012 press release illustrates "smart on crime" nonsense. See http://governor.oregon.gov/Gov/media_room/press_releases/p2012/press_051412.shtml.

[23] Source: Senator Jeff Sessions, "SBC White Paper on Education in America: It's Not About The Money", page 6, figure 5. See: http://budget.senate.gov/republican/public/index.cfm/files/serve?File_id=a7b9e4c8-838c-475f-b54b-88aeb94a94f7&SK=C16D209AFC051636325D2F239CB1A295.

[24] The U.S. Department of Education "Condition of Education 2011" report shows that in 2007 the United States had the second highest level of spending on elementary and secondary education (figure 38-1) and by far the highest level of spending on postsecondary education (figure 38-2). See http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/pdf/coe_ifn.pdf.

[25] Students from poorer countries that spend less on education than the United States are beating U.S. students. The U.S. students ranked 25th in mathematics. Source: The Guardian, December 7 2010. See http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/datablog/2010/dec/07/world-education-rankings-maths-science-reading.