By Phil Manzano
of The Oregonian staff
SALEM - Oregon's overcrowded prisons, which have officials scrambling to rent beds out of state, must absorb another 400 inmates next year, according to a prison population forecast released Friday.
Oregon has seen tremendous growth in prisoners during the past year, but forecasters expect the rate of growth to slow.
Corrections Director Dave Cook said his department must wait and see exactly how many more inmates there would be, but he did not rule out the possibility of approaching legislators for more money.
The Corrections Department began seeing an unanticipated rise in admissions last September.
The increase has forced prison officials to erect temporary beds in prisons and scour the country for prison beds to rent. Nearly 100 Oregon inmates already have been shipped to Texas, where Oregon has rented about 250 beds. Officials estimate having to rent more than 1,200 beds before a massive prison expansion in Ontario is completed in 1997.
Oregon's prison population will top 7,800 inmates in October - an estimated 15 percent increase from the same time last year, according to Stephen Willhite, who forecasts prison population for the Office of Economic Analysis.
Average monthly prison admissions
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Prison:Admissions up 25 percent in 1995
have increased by 25 percent in 1995 compared with the previous year. Average admissions were 467 inmates a month in 1994, compared with 587 a month for the first six months of 1995.
There was a 15 percent increase in inmates admitted for new crimes. But there was a startling 45.7 percent increase in inmates admitted for violating probation or parole.
Willhite said the unanticipated prison growth was fueled mainly by this increase in parolees and probationers.
Other factors such as a get-tough-on-crime climate may have resulted in stricter decisions by police, parole officers, district attorneys, judges and the Oregon Parole Board.
In addition, Senate Bill 1145 - a plan to transfer inmates serving less than a year in state prisons to county jails - will not save as many beds as originally planned.
In April, a forecast showed that 1,764 state inmates would be housed in county jails by July 1997. But the forecast Thursday showed that 1,384 inmates would be affected by SB1145 in July 1997, meaning that 380 more inmates would be housed in state prisons than expected.
The steep population growth in Oregon's prisons is expected to ease in coming years. Forecasters expect 6 percent growth in 1996 compared with 1995, and 3 percent growth in 1997 compared with 1996.
By July 1996, Oregon's prisons are projected to house 8,899 prisoners; by July 1998, 10,107 inmates; by July 2000, 12,858 inmates. The forecast stretches to July 2005, when Oregon is expected to have 18,168 inmates.
Thursday's forecast was the first released by the Office of Economic Policy, which prepares forecasts of state tax revenues. The office took over the prison population forecasting duty under a bill passed in the 1995 Legislature and will issue prison population forecasts twice a year.
Paul Warner, the state's chief economist, warned that forecasting is difficult in times of "structural change."
Oregon's justice system is undergoing major changes as it implements SB1145 and Ballot Measure 11, which sets mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent crime.
Measure 11 is expected to add nearly 1,000 prisoners by July 1997 and 3,009 prisoners by July 1999.
The Corrections Department recently broke ground in Ontario to expand the Snake River Correctional Institution from roughly 600 beds to hold 3,000 inmates by 1997. In addition, the department has plans to build another 1,500-bed prison, Cook said.
Phil Manzano covers prisons for The Oregonian's Crime, Justice & Public Safety Team. He can be reached by phone at 221-8212 or by fax at 294-5009.
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