The following is an op-ed that Crime Victims United policy analyst Howard Rodstein which ran in the Lake Oswego Review on May 10, 2012.

This version includes two corrections highlighted below in red.

On February 23 the Lake Oswego Review ran an op-ed from former State Representative Greg Macpherson[1] that starts with the phrase "Schools versus prisons". The gist is that if we took some of the money we spend on prisons and spent it on schools instead, we would be safer in the end. This is a variation of the "smart-on-crime" narrative popular among some politicians in Salem.

The op-ed accurately notes that Oregon's prison population has more than doubled in the last two decades. Now let's put that statistic in historical context.

From 1960 to 1985, while Oregon's violent crime rate rose 690 percent, Oregon built one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds[2]. It is this failure of Oregon government, a reflection of the "smart-on-crime" thinking of the time, that necessitated the spate of prison construction in the late 1980's and 1990's.

In 1994 the voters of Oregon took matters into their own hands with the passage of Measure 11 which set mandatory minimum sentences for the worst violent and sex crimes. Since 1995, Oregon's violent crime rate has fallen by more than 50 percent - the second largest decrease in crime rate among all states over that period[3]. We don't claim that increased incarceration is solely responsible for this decrease but we do believe it made a substantial contribution.

The implication of today's "smart-on-crime" marketing is that Oregon has gone overboard with incarceration. Macpherson advances this narrative by claiming 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". But today Oregon ranks just 33rd among states in incarceration rate.[4] And over 70 percent of felony criminals are placed on probation or local control, not sent to prison [5].

This hardly supports the narrative that Oregon has gone overboard. On the contrary, as a national expert told legislators in a 2010 hearing: "It is nationally viewed that Oregon has made good use of probation and parole and has largely prioritized its prison space for violent offenders[6]."

Much of Oregon's cost of corrections is due to our high cost structure. As of 2010, Oregon spent $84 per prisoner per day[7] compared to $52.22 for Idaho[8].

As far as I know, the legislature has never addressed or explained this discrepancy. If Oregon's costs are high relative to other states, it is not because our incarceration rate is high.

Despite this high cost structure, there is evidence that incarceration saves Oregon considerably more money than it costs[9].

Oregon spends over $200 million per biennium on health services and treatment for prisoners[10]. Much of this expenditure would be required anyway if the prisoners were in the community.

In his op-ed, Macpherson speaks of "misconduct that causes incarceration." You don't go to prison in Oregon for "misconduct". 70 percent of Oregon's inmates are serving time for violent or sex crimes[11]. Most of the rest are repeat-repeat property criminals, drug manufacturers and dealers.

If Oregon's costs are high relative to other states, it is not because we are sending petty criminals or drug users to prison.

The "smart-on-crime" narrative may be good politics but it is not good policy. The results Oregon has seen over the last 17 years demonstrate that, in fact, we have been smart on crime, protestations of the politicians notwithstanding.

Howard Rodstein is a director and policy analyst for Crime Victims United.



[1] Macpherson op ed

[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.

[3] Since 1995, Oregon's violent crime rate has fallen by more than 50 percent - the second largest decrease in crime rate among all states over that period.

[4] Oregon ranks just 33rd among states in incarceration rate (page 22, table 9).

[5] Over 70 percent of felony criminals are placed on probation, not sent to prison.

[6] Jake Horowitz, Pew Center on the States, Judiciary Committee presentation, February 15, 2010, at 10:25 into presentation.

[7] In 2010 Oregon spent $84 per prisoner per day (page 49).

[8] In 2010 Idaho spent $52.22 per prisoner per day (page 4).

[9] There is evidence that incarceration saves Oregon considerably more money than it costs (page 11, Table 3 and related text).

[10] Oregon spends over $200 million per biennium on health services and treatment for prisoners (page 2).

[11] 70 percent of Oregon's inmates are serving time for violent or sex crimes.