This op-ed was submitted to The Oregonian by Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, Linn County District Attorney Jason Carlile, and Steve Doell of Crime Victims United. It was printed on Monday, July 13th. It is reprinted here as it was submitted, before the Oregonian edited it.


Sacrificing Public Safety - For No Reason

In the name of filling a budget gap, the 2009 Oregon Legislature has seriously weakened the criminal justice system. They "suspended" until January 1, 2012 Measure 57, the voter-approved response to prolific repeat home invasion burglars, identity thieves, auto thieves, illegal drug dealers and manufacturers. The Legislature itself put Measure 57 on the 2008 ballot and promoted it as essential for public safety. They increased "earned time" (also known as "good time") from 20 percent to 30 percent for a large number of prisoners. They cut supervision for prisoners re-entering the community in half. They effectively cut probation from two years to one. They cut jail time for probation violators from 180 days to 60 days - a two thirds reduction. In short, they weakened nearly every part of the criminal justice system. All of this will damage the credibility of that system in the eyes of criminals, victims, and law-abiding citizens.

We suspect that Measure 57 will never return (as passed by the voters) and 30% earned time will become a permanent fixture. Such changes are the initial steps in a process that will eventually unravel the progress of the last 20 years.

These changes were not necessary to fill the budget gap. There were many proposals on the table to do that without eroding public safety.

This year's legislative criminal justice debate is part of a decades-long running battle between competing visions of criminal justice - between the tough approach that views crime as the result of individual choices and the soft approach that views crime as the manifestation of societal problems.

In our view, the legislators' responsibility was to address the budget crisis without undermining the credibility of our criminal justice system. Instead they elected to turn the clock back toward the 1960's, 70's and 80's when the soft approach led to decades of rising violence. Oregon experienced a 7.9-times increase in violent crime from 1960 to 1985.

Most of the legislators who supported these changes did so out of a concern for the budget, however misguided it was. But the proponents of the soft approach, led by Representative Chip Shields, had another agenda - to soften the impact of the criminal justice system on criminals and to advance their utopian theory of reducing crime while keeping criminals on the street. They claim that we can replace tough consequences with "proven" treatment programs. They do this under the slogan "Smart on Crime". But we've been there before and it was not so smart.

Following the dictum "Never let a crisis go to waste", they used threats of deep and widespread budget cuts to all areas of the public safety system to pressure officials into supporting their plan. The widespread cuts were not necessary for budgetary reasons. The threats were a hardball political tactic to advance an unpalatable criminal justice agenda.

If they could have, they would have weakened the system much more. They wanted 50% earned time but got only 30%. They tried to undermine Measure 11 and its mandatory minimum sentences for violent criminals and serious sex offenders. Fortunately responsible voices prevailed. Representative Shields and his followers are not satisfied and will be back in the next legislative session, trying to weaken punishment and accountability as much as they can.

In the end, it is up to the voters of Oregon to decide which criminal justice approach will prevail. Their message over the last two decades has been loud and clear but many legislators don't seem to be listening. The voters understand the first priority of government is to keep their neighborhoods safe. It looks like the voters may need to send the message again.

Tom Bergin is Sheriff of Clatsop County. Jason Carlile is District Attorney of Linn County. Steve Doell is President of Crime Victims United.


Public Safety Battle in 2009 Oregon Legislature