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Eugene Weekly : Coverstory : 5.28.2009

Jailing Kids

How prisons chain up money for schools and other services

By Alan Pittman

In blowing its budget on prisons, Oregon is a world leader.

Oregon spends a greater portion of its general fund on prisons than any other state in the nation, according to a Pew foundation study last year. The U.S. itself leads the world in prisons, incarcerating a greater share of its population than any other major country.

But with Oregon now closing schools and packing classrooms while teetering on a $4 billion budget chasm, even politicians are beginning to murmur that when it comes to jailing funding for kids, enough is enough.

 

Cost

Oregon now spends 11 percent of its general fund on prisons, ranking #1 in the nation at almost twice the national average, according to the Pew Center on the States study.

It wasn’t always that way. Twenty years ago Oregon was about average in its prison spending. But after the passage of four different minimum sentence measures, Oregon’s prison population has almost quadrupled in size to 14,000. State officials estimate that the state will continue to add almost 1,000 new inmates a year. 

For each one of those inmates, the cost of building a prison bed is about $323,000. Operating prisons cost about $90,000 a year per bed, according to state estimates. 

Those big prison bills compete directly for school funding in the state’s tight general fund. Due to the recession, the state faces a loss of about a quarter of its general fund budget. About 42 percent of the fund is used to pay for K-12 education. Saving the yearly cost of guarding just one inmate would be enough to reduce a crowded class size, which could reach 40 students in some districts, by about nine students. New schools cost only about one tenth as much to build as new prisons.

Locally, the 4J school district is looking at axing dozens of teachers, cutting teacher pay and closing schools to meet an estimated 15 percent budget cut of up to $20 million from the state.

Higher education will also take a big hit with massive tuition increases for students and families already struggling to fund college in the down economy. Even before the cuts, Oregon ranked third in the nation for the highest ratio of prison spending to spending on higher education in the nation, according to Pew. Oregon now spends about 6 percent more on prisoners than on college students.

To continue to fund prisons in the face of the $4 billion budget gap, the state is also looking at cutting thousands of caregivers for the poor, elderly, disabled and toddlers.

Meanwhile, the state is planning to spend more than a half billion dollars to build 1,800 more prison beds in Junction City.

 

Benefit?

So what does Oregon get for all the billions it spends on locking people up? Well, that’s hard to say.

Prison proponents argue that higher incarceration rates reduce crime. But the U.S. has both the highest incarceration rates in the world and some of the highest serious crime rates. For example, the U.S. has eight times the incarceration rate of Germany and six times the murder rate.

In the U.S. crime has historically fluctuated up and down during years of rising incarceration rates, according to a study by The Sentencing Project. The reform group found that when comparing states in the U.S., high incarceration rates did not correspond to low crime rates. For example, Texas increased its incarceration rate five times faster than New York state, but New York enjoyed a greater decrease in crime in recent years.  

Prison proponents also make the apparently opposite argument that the U.S. has more prisons because it has a higher crime rate. Ignoring the logical inconsistency (prisons prevent crime, but crime causes prisons?), the high U.S. incarceration rate appears more related to politics than crime statistics. For example, the U.S. locks up four times more people per robbery than does Germany.

In Oregon the crime rate has been steadily dropping for two decades. Violent crime is down 28 percent and property crime is down 46 percent since 1988. But that hasn’t stopped the continued political push for more and more prisons. 

 

Efficiency 

If you really want to decrease crime, there are far better and cheaper ways to do it than building more and more prisons, studies show.

Because the worst offenders were jailed long ago, Oregon’s economic prison benefit per dollar spent has declined from about a three-to-one ratio to about a one-to-one ratio, according to a recent Oregon Criminal Justice Commission report. 

In contrast, preschool programs have a 16-to-one economic payback in reduced crime, unemployment and school dropouts, according to Pew.

A U.S. Department of Justice study of crime prevention measures in other countries found that probation spending had twice the bang for the buck at reducing crime as prison spending, parent training four times, and school programs seven times the benefit of prisons per dollar. 

A RAND Corporation study found drug treatment was seven times more effective at reducing crime than incarceration.

About 75 percent of Oregon inmates need substance abuse treatment, and about 44 percent need mental health treatment, according to the Department of Corrections. 

If the state had funded that treatment before prison rather than during prison, a lot of crime and jail cost could have been prevented. A study this year by Harvard researchers showed that perhaps a third of mentally ill inmates wouldn’t be in prison if they had received needed medications before their arrest.

A Washington state study showed that imprisoning nonviolent drug offenders had 12 times less economic benefit for crime reduction than did incarcerating violent offenders. 

More than a dozen states are beginning to recognize that there are cheaper ways to fight crime more effectively, according to the Pew study. Even states like conservative Texas are saving hundreds of millions of dollars through simple reforms without increasing crime. The reforms include cutting incarceration by reducing sentences as an incentive for good behavior and treatment completion, and releasing minor drug offenders to parole supervision.

Another cost-saving approach is giving minor parole violators non-prison sanctions such as increased reporting, monitoring or community service. Last year Multnomah County saved 80 jail beds using such efforts at reforming sanctions for parole violations, the Vera Institute of Justice reported.

 

Reform

With state revenue in crisis, there are even some glimmers of reform in Oregon, the national leader in blowing its budget on prisons.

Eugene state Sen. Floyd Prozanski said a legislative work group he serves on will recommend this week that the state largely hold off on implementing Measure 57. Passed last year, Measure 57 would add an estimated 1,600 non-violent prisoners. 

Prozanski said the recommendation would keep the longer prison terms for about 100 offenders already sentenced but delay longer sentences for new offenders for about two years, saving roughly $70 million.

The change could mean holding off on the big new Junction City prison, according to Prozanski. “It will be built, [but] it may be two to three years out.”

As for school spending, Prozanski said that could save money on prisons. “If we keep people from going in, either from the education or job training end, that’s great,” he said.

Delaying adding more prisoners could face fierce opposition from pro-prison groups bankrolled by Loren Parks, an eccentric Nevada millionaire. Last year the groups unsuccessfully pushed a prison measure that would have put four times more people behind bars than Measure 57.

Prozanski said the choice will be between delaying 57 and unpopular deep cuts to state police, prosecutor and judicial spending. Because of yet another prison measure, the reform will require a two-thirds supermajority in both legislative houses to pass. But asked about the prospects of clearing that high hurdle, Prozanski said, “I think they’re good.”







Local Prison Battle

The local jail guard union attacked the progressive majority on the Lane County Board of Commissioners this week for failing to increase jail jobs as much as the guards wanted. 

The guards, represented by the Lane County Peace Officers Association and their new political action committee, wanted the county to commit to spending $3.3 million to add back 31 guard jobs lost in a previous budget cut.

Of course, the guards have a conflict of interest. The $3.3 million works out to more than $100,000 per job in salary, benefits, retirement (PERS) and other costs.

The majority of county commissioners argued that in the face of a sharp ramp-down in federal timber payments and the prospect of deep cuts in support from the state, they have to consider broader public interests. 

Commissioner Rob Handy said at a meeting that the county also has to fund increasing demands for mental health, jobless and basic needs social services in the deep recession.  “We are the last line of defense,” Handy said.

Over years of deepening budget cuts, the county has lost about a third of its public health and mental health treatment staff. According to a recent county report, Lane County turns away 2,300 people seeking drug and alcohol treatment a year and treats up to 300 fewer people for mental illness than in the past. 

The jail guard union’s push for a big increase in jail spending comes despite a 22 percent drop in the violent crime rate in Lane County over the past decade and a 36 percent drop in the property crime rate, according to FBI data. Lane County is one of the safest areas to live in the nation with a violent crime rate half that of Multnomah County and 34 percent less than the national average.  

Commissioner Pete Sorenson said if the county spent all its reserves on public safety now, it could be forced to make drastic cuts in jail and other spending when federal timber funding runs out in three and half years or the state cuts funding sooner. “That’s what were trying to avoid, the cliff,” he said.

Commissioner Bill Fleenor agreed that the county couldn’t afford to be short-sighted. “We’re concerned about public safety today, but we’re also concerned about public safety tomorrow.”

Sorenson said he finds it “ironic” that he and other progressives are trying to be fiscally conservative with the county budget while conservatives are clamoring for short-sighted spending increases.

“It’s not true we don’t care about public safety,” Sorenson said, pointing out that the budget continued to allocate 58 percent of all the county general fund to public safety. The board also voted to add five patrol deputies and five additional district attorney staff. 

Sorenson said the $3.2 million jail proposal would have added capacity for about 78 more inmates, decreasing daily releases from jail overcrowding from 13 to 10. He said about half the releases are for those accused of misdemeanor crimes. 

Ron Chase, director of the Sponsors inmate transitional housing nonprofit, has been a critic of past efforts by the county to increase jail funding and not prevention. But after deeper jail cuts in recent years, Chase said he now believes that the county does need some more jail beds. “It’s been quite a long strange trip for me,” he said of his changed position. “We don’t have the capacity to hold people long enough to get them in treatment.”

Local Congressman Peter DeFazio has also called for more county jail spending, although he hasn’t identified increased taxes, specific spending cuts or continuing federal funding to pay for it.  

Sorenson said he agrees that some more beds are needed. He said the city of Eugene is interested in his suggestion to fund $1 million more for the jail by swapping county dedicated road funding for jail money.

Fleenor has said he’d cast a deciding vote to cut $250,000 in controversial money for part-time commissioner assistants to free up more money.

Another place to look for funds may be in the huge local property tax breaks past conservative county commissions have backed. The County Commission could force changes to the enterprise zone program that has given tens of millions of dollars away in corporate and developer tax breaks. The county could also push Eugene and Springfield to reform or end their practice of giving away millions of dollars to developers through apartment tax breaks (MUPTE) and urban renewal tax diversions. 

About 10 percent of any reduction in local property tax giveaways would directly benefit the county, with the rest of the money going to help schools, the state and other local government services.

Jails and schools are essential government services, said former Eugene city councilor Bonny Bettman. “They should be funded first before the developers get their money.”

Sorenson said the county, state and nation need to look at prevention and treatment, not just at jails, to reduce crime. “We spend a disproportionate amount of our public money on jails and prisons,” Sorenson said. “We have to find a better way.” — Alan Pittman