Pew Report Sparks Debate on Corrections



In February the Pew Center for the States released a report decrying the growth of incarceration in the states. The report got a lot of attention in Oregon because it claimed that Oregon spends a higher percentage of its budget on corrections than any other state. It also claimed that Oregon is one of just four states that spends more money on corrections than on higher education. These claims, as well as many of the assertions in the Pew report, are dubious.

The Pew report reinforced many misconceptions that people have about corrections in Oregon. On February 29, 2008, The Oregonian ran a front page story on the report followed by an editorial on March 2 and an op ed on March 3. The editorial and op ed echo the misconceptions.

On March 9, 2008, The Oregonian ran an op ed on the subject from Crime Victims United (see below).

On the same day, letters to the editor included one letter that decried the influence of the private prison industry. The writer apparently did not know that there are no private prisons in Oregon and that private prison companies do not lobby the Oregon legislature or have any influence in Oregon.

Another letter decried the war on drugs. However the war on drugs never reached Oregon where in 2005, just 4 percent of people convicted of drug-related felonies were sent to prison.

Crime Victims United Op Ed
The Oregonian, March 9, 2008

A recent editorial and op-ed in The Oregonian reflect common misconceptions about Oregon's corrections system.

Responding to a study from the Pew Center on the States, they argued that Oregon is spending too much money to incarcerate the wrong people. They appear to believe that the Pew report accurately reflects criminal justice policies in Oregon.

It does not.

The Pew Report (available at says that Oregon is No. 1 among states in percentage of its budget spent on corrections. Yet in 2006 we were 34th among states in prison-incarceration rate. This does not add up. Pew's comparison of state budgets is suspect; Oregon's corrections budget includes parole and probation, and many other state budgets do not.

The Pew report says that Oregon is one of four states that spend more on corrections than on higher education. In Oregon's budget, community colleges, student grants and Oregon Health & Science University are not included in the higher education budget. If you account for these items, Pew's conclusion is wrong.

Are we really incarcerating the wrong people? About 69 percent of Oregon's prison population is incarcerated for crimes against people – violent crimes, sexual assaults and child-molestation crimes. Most of the rest are repeat-repeat-repeat property offenders and serious drug manufacturers and dealers.

In 2005, 91 percent of all defendants convicted of felony drug offenses were sentenced to probation. In 2006, 79 percent of people convicted of felonies of any kind received probation sentences. No one is in an Oregon prison solely for using drugs.

The Oregonian editorial ("No country for young men," March 6) said we should get smarter by "reserving prison for the hard cases and rehabilitating the rest with a mixture of jail, drug treatment and meaningful community service." This is precisely what we do in Oregon.

The Pew report suffers from an egregious omission. It lays out in graphic detail the steady increase in incarceration in the United States since 1987 but completely omits the context that led to this increase: three decades of inexorably rising violent crime. Oregon's violent crime rate increased by 690 percent from 1960 to 1985 and remained flat near peak levels for the next 10 years. Pew also obfuscates the stunning decrease in violent crime that followed increased incarceration. Oregon's violent crime rate decreased 46 percent from 1995 to 2006. It is hard to imagine any reason for omitting this context, other than that it would undermine Pew's preposterous claim that increased incarceration failed to have a clear impact on crime.

What benefit has Oregon seen for its increased incarceration? Relative to the 1995 violent crime rate, Oregon now has approximately 8,000 fewer violent index crimes (aggravated assaults, robberies, forcible rapes, manslaughters and murders) each year. According to an estimate from the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, Oregon now prevents approximately 100,000 crimes of all types each year as a result of our increased incarceration since 1995.

Behind these stunning figures are countless thousands of Oregonians who were not victimized. This represents our state's most significant social accomplishment in memory, and yet it is routinely dismissed by the media and by many legislators. The voter-mandated investment in public safety has paid off handsomely both in human and financial terms.

The recent op-ed (March 3) was entitled "Pew report shows we're far off course." In fact, it shows the exact opposite: Nearly every remedy prescribed by the Pew report is already being done in Oregon. The reality of corrections in Oregon bears little resemblance to misconceptions recently reflected in the pages of The Oregonian.

On March 21, The Oregonian ran a response from Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States.

Pew Letter To The Editor, March 21, 2008

Prisons but one piece

An opinion piece by Howard Rodstein, "Incarcerations greatly cut Oregon's crime" (March 9) responded to our study on rising incarceration rates by asking the wrong question.

Does having one in 100 adults behind bars cut crime? Sure it does. In the past 20 years, Oregon's prison population more than doubled and its violent crime rate fell 48 percent. But the right question is: Dollar for dollar, what is the best way to protect public safety and hold offenders accountable?

Many states are recognizing that prisons are not the only way to fight crime. In fact, Oregon has a national reputation for strong community corrections programs, which can not only cut recidivism but also require offenders to hold down a job so they can pay taxes, child support and restitution to their victims.

The opinion piece also questioned comparisons of state spending on corrections and higher education. True, each state structures and funds its operations differently. But as confirmed by the state's Budget and Administrative Division and contrary to Rodstein's assertion, the figures cited in Pew's report did include costs associated with community colleges, student assistance and Oregon Health and Science University.

Comparisons aside, the real issue is the growth in Oregon's corrections costs. The state's inflation-adjusted general fund spending on corrections has increased 152 percent since 1987. Back then, corrections spending accounted for 6.3 percent of the state budget; today it's 10.9 percent.

It's up to policy makers to ensure that taxpayers are not only safe but receive the highest possible return on their investments in public safety.

ADAM GELB Director Public Safety Performance Project Pew Center on the States Washington, D.C.

On March 23, Crime Victims United submitted this letter the editor.

Crime Victims United Response to Pew Letter, March 23, 2008

In his March 21 letter, Adam Gelb of the Pew Center on the States says that Oregon spends more on corrections than on higher education and that his figures include community colleges, OHSU and student assistance. But figures from the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office's analysis of the 2007-2009 budget contradict this statement. The following figures come from

The Oregon general fund budget for corrections is $1.26 billion, including $225 million for community corrections, while the general fund budget for higher education, including community colleges, OHSU and student assistance, is $1.57 billion. The all-funds budget for corrections is $1.34 billion while the all-funds budget for higher education, including community colleges, OHSU and student assistance, is $5.8 billion.

Neither the general fund nor the all-funds budget tells us how much money taxpayers are spending on Oregon prisons versus Oregon higher education. In the spring of 2007, we asked the Legislative Fiscal Office to estimate these figures. The answer: about $1.1 billion of taxpayer dollars go for prisons compared to about $2 billion for higher education.

Mr. Gelb also stated that Oregon spends 10.9 percent of its budget on corrections. However the LFO analysis shows that Oregon's general fund corrections budget, including $225 million for community corrections (parole, probation, treatment), is 9 percent of the total 2007-2009 general fund budget. Spending on prisons, which is what Mr. Gelb objects to, is less than 7.5 percent of the general fund budget. And prison spending represents 2.1 percent of the all-funds budget.

Mr. Gelb acknowledges in his letter that increased incarceration of criminals has contributed to Oregon's stunning decrease in violent crime rate which he cites as 48 percent in 20 years. Yet the first paragraph of the executive summary of his nationally publicized report inexplicably says that increased incarceration "failed to have a clear impact either on recidivism or overall crime."

Oregonian Article, February 29, 2008

Oregonian Editorial, March 2, 2008

Previous Op Ed, March 3, 2008

Pew Letter To The Editor, March 21, 2008

Pew Report