By Phil Manzano
of The Oregonian staff
Gov. John Kitzhaber said Tuesday it's time for the Oregon Legislature to re-examine Measure 17, the state's prison labor law.
A state report called the measure that forces all prison inmates to work "fundamentally impossible" to implement.
The law, which was written into the Oregon Constitution after voters passed the measure in 1994, requires every able prison inmate to work a 40-hour week.
But the report states it will be expensive and could take jobs away from private citizens, while making the Oregon Corrections Department the largest employer in the state.
"We can buy ourselves into compliance" with the law, Kitzhaber said. "The question is: 'Do we want to?'"
The report, written by Dave White, assistant director of the Department of Administrative Services, was discussed at the Prison Industries Board meeting Tuesday. The board consists of Kitzhaber, Secretary of State Phil Kiesling [sic] and state Treasurer Jim Hill.
"With federal restrictions and competitive realities, self-supporting full employment" of inmates "is fundamentally impossible," White wrote. "DOC cannot possibly hope to employ every minimally qualified felon it can find and still make a competitive business profit or pay its own way."
Kitzhaber said the implementation of Measure 17 could come at the expense of other areas funded by the state, such as education.
None of the members opposed the measure's goals, but they questioned how to do it without jeopardizing private jobs or the state budget.
"What was missing from the debate was a discussion of what the tradeoffs were," Kitzhaber said.
White estimated the program could cost an extra annual $94 million to $138 million by 2003 when Oregon's prison population is expected to be about 16,000.
"That sounds incredible at first. But if you ask yourself: 'If I had a 13,000-person business and all of a sudden I had to buy a correctional security level for all those people, what would it cost me?'" White said.
"What would it cost me to imprison everybody at Nike? It wouldn't come cheaply."
State Treasurer Hill compared the measure to building a house and finding a major hidden cost that threatens the project's viability.
"I honestly believe when people voted for this they had no idea other than the great general concept of what this was about," Hill said.
"I suspect if they knew it was going to cost this much they would say 'timeout.' And I think that they would expect us to say 'timeout.'"
The report highlights the staggering task of implementing the measure and suggests that major changes are needed to make the measure work.
Oregon has about 8,500 inmates, and about half meet the Measure 17 requirement.
The new law requires that every inmate "should work as hard as the taxpayers who pay for their upkeep."
Reaching those goals, however, will force fundamental and historic changes on the Oregon Corrections Department - which already has a major construction program under way to deal with its rising prison population.
Ben de Haan, Corrections Department deputy director, said the report identifies some of Measure 17's "toxic side effects," but they also recognize the value of inmate work.
"We intend to work as hard to get as far with it as we can."
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