Just Say No to New Jails and The Oregonian's "Cells for crooks"

When the Portland mass media unanimously refused to print or broadcast even one "opinion" piece or news article that would undercut public support for two measures in the May 21, 1996 election to raise $250 million in taxes for new jails in Multnomah County, Portland NORML member Phil Smith posted a Usenet request to voters on May 14 asking them to Please Vote "No" for New Jails in Multnomah County. The Oregonian seemed to respond to that essay with a staff editorial May 18 titled "Cells for crooks," which evaded all of the issues raised in Smith's post. Smith responded by posting the ensuing introduction and "letter to the editor" of The Oregonian to Usenet on May 19:

The only daily paper in Portland (and the largest in the Northwest) seems to have responded to my previous post of May 14, "Please Vote 'No' for New Jails in Multnomah County" with a staff editorial in the May 18 paper titled "Cells for crooks," which reiterates the editorial board's justification for $250 million in new jails. Those of you who suffered through my previous post may enjoy flagellating yourselves with this (presumably final) response on my part - Phil Smith (pdxnorml@pdxnorml.org)

Letters to the Editor
The Oregonian

May 18, 1996

To the Editor:

It is nice to see that editorial writers at The Oregonian finally did just a little research to support the claims they have been making for months that Multnomah County residents should vote for new jails on May 21 ("Cells for crooks," Saturday, May 18, p. E6).

Unfortunately, none of the statistics they cite are referenced. Where do they come from?

More to the point, the only relevant numbers Oregonian editors cite do not support what the editors say they do. While 30 percent of the 223 people released by the sheriff in February were drug offenders - by definition nonviolent and victimless - that does not address the question of how many and what percentage of drug offenders were not released, and what role that plays in overcrowded Multnomah County jails. The court records The Oregonian publishes every Thursday as well as first-hand accounts this writer has heard from former guests of the county's hospitality suggest at least 60 percent of all prisoners on any given day are controlled-substance violators, primarily first-time marijuana offenders. If the Oregonian is aware of any credible statistics which counter the perception that 70 percent of county prisoners test positive for "drugs" because 70 percent or more have been arrested on victimless "drug" charges, please print them and reference them.

With all its clamor for more money for prison beds, why hasn't The Oregonian called for better statistics on how that money is spent and free public access to them? Just because Oregonian editors can't understand math doesn't mean others can't.

Oregonian editors admit that "30 percent" of matrix releases in February were drug offenders. Assuming even only 30 percent of the county's current jail population is comprised of drug offenders, if Multnomah County taxpayers had decided to defund prosecutions for victimless drug crimes, as has happened to varying degrees in San Jose, California, Vancouver, British Columbia and other areas with no increase in crime, clearly the public could have protected itself from the 16 percent of prisoners released who were arrested for auto theft, the 8 percent arrested for burglary and 7 percent arrested for crimes against persons, and there would still be all but 30 percent of our jail beds available for other real criminals.

Multnomah County now has a court-ordered ceiling of 1,371 jail beds, plus 480 more if the May 21 bond measure passes, for a potential 1,851 beds.

Since, according to the federal government's own conservative statistics*, there are at least 31,806 illegal-drug users in Multnomah County, that would mean there are at least 23 substance offenders in Multnomah County for every jail cell. If the jail-bond and levy measures pass on May 21, there would still be at least 17 substance offenders for each bed. It should be obvious that officials can fill up county jails with nonviolent, easy-to-manage drug offenders any time they want to.

That's what they seem to have been doing for years.

How many such offenders do Oregonian editors really want to arrest, and at what cost? Why don't the editors hire somebody who understands math so they can explain what it would really cost the taxpayers to enforce the drug laws editors are so enamored of?

If the editors are so confident of the reasonableness of their agenda, why have they not printed even one "letter to the editor" in opposition to Measures 26-45 and 26-42?

The editors use specious reasoning, omit relevant information and make statements contrary to fact throughout "Cells for crooks." For one thing, editors' assertion that "The county's population is increasing, and so is crime" contradicts the paper's own report of Portland Police Bureau statistics on April 17 ("Portland takes a bite out of crime," p. B2 3M-MP), which said that the crime rate dropped drastically in the first three months of 1996, including an 8.2 percent drop in crimes against persons and a 13.4 percent drop in property crimes. Are the editors calling the police and their own reporters liars? While significant increases occurred in murders (from 8 to 14), rapes (from 94 to 100) and robberies (from 588 to 609), people sentenced for such offenses become prisoners of the state, so how would that be relevant to the need for county jails?

The Oregonian editors' endorsement of mandatory drug treatment programs for jails omits most of the relevant factors voters should weigh on May 21. For example, an article in the editors' own paper on March 14, "Report Tallies State's Drug, Alcohol Toll" (p. E5), states that, according to Jeffrey N. Kushner, director of the state Office of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Programs, "treatment facilities around Oregon are full and have long waiting lists."

Since it is generally agreed that taxpayers could fund seven to 10 treatment opportunities outside jail for the cost of just one treatment slot inside jail, why won't editors explain their preference for jail treatment? How could it make more sense to fund mandatory prison treatment programs before funding voluntary outpatient treatment programs?

If the editors had studied more math at journalism school and less about how to manufacture consensus, their lack of logic would be more apparent to them. Any way one computes it, mandatory drug-treatment for prisoners is less cost-effective than voluntary outpatient treatment.

The math is based on several assumptions. Most important, how many prisoners in mandatory treatment programs can taxpayers expect to "cure," and thereby presumably end ongoing criminal careers? The officials who have asked Multnomah County voters to fund prisoner drug-treatment programs have cited research from the National Institute of Justice, as reported by the U.S. Department of Justice in a February statement that claims "Prison treatment programs and aftercare can be effective in turning drug offenders away from drug use and a life of crime, according to a report released by the National Institute of Justice (NIJ) of programs evaluated in California, New York, Oregon and Delaware. The California program cut the usual 60 percent recidivism rate to about 25 percent."

So let's assume Oregon did as well as California and 75 out of 100 such inmates are "cured" and 75 criminal careers ended. (One problem with the NIJ research is that it didn't follow what happened to prisoners long-term, after they were no longer on parole or probation. It also did not calculate what the cost would be for mandatory drug treatment for all drug offenders, which is absurdly prohibitive. Also, about 90 percent to 95 percent of illegal-drug users stop on their own by their late 30s anyway, even if they never get arrested or undergo treatment, just as most real criminals settle down to law-abiding lifestyles in their late 30s or 40s. The government research fails to account for those baseline rates. Finally, research in Sweden suggests that for some reason hard-drug addicts who fail mandatory prison-treatment programs die of so-called drug overdoses at a much higher rate than addicts who never go to jail.)

Another assumption one needs to make to complete the equation is the extent to which illegal-drug use actually causes the commission of real crimes against others. If the editors would examine just three possibilities mathematically, they might understand how irrational their calls for mandatory drug-treatment programs for prisoners really are, so long as voluntary outpatient treatment is unavailable.

What if, as the paper seems fond of suggesting, illegal-drug use inevitably leads to the commission of real crimes against others? In that case, mandatory treatment for 100 prisoners would end 75 criminal careers. But what if the same tax revenue were used to fund just 700 voluntary outpatient treatment opportunities? To be more cost effective at preventing crime, such treatment would have to be only 11 percent successful to prevent 77 criminal careers and thus prove more cost effective.

But what if illegal drugs theoretically engendered real crime in 50 percent of all users? In that case, fifty of the 100 prisoners receiving mandatory treatment would be wasting taxpayer resources. Of the other fifty, 75 percent would be prevented from committing real crimes, which would mean 37.5 criminal careers nipped in the bud. In this scenario, however, taxpayers could still treat 700 to 1000 voluntary patients outside of jails. Assuming a minimum of 700 such treatment opportunities, the success ratio of those prevented from engaging in crime would have to be only 6 percent - 42 people - for such an option to be more cost-effective at preventing crime.

Finally, what if only one percent of illegal-drug users commit crimes attributable to drug abuse? (The evidence suggests the rate is less than that, but the point being made is mathematical.) That would mean 99 percent of mandatory drug treatment for prisoners is wasted. The taxpayers would need to arrest 1,000 drug offenders and oblige them to undergo treatment in order to prevent 7.5 criminal careers. The same money would fund 7,000 to 10,000 outpatient drug-rehabilitation opportunities. Assuming the low-ball figure of 7,000, such outpatient treatment would need to be just more than one percent successful - lower than the margin of error and much lower than baseline rates - to be more cost-effective than mandatory drug treatment programs for prisoners.

Now, it might reasonably be countered that these three equations are flawed because prisoners consigned to mandatory drug treatment have already committed real crimes, or have severe drug problems. But people who voluntarily seek outpatient treatment for drug abuse also have serious problems, especially when they are turned away and their best hope of getting treatment is to go to jail to obtain it. But how will implementing this scenario reduce crime? If the editors want to take the view that noncriminals with serious drug problems do not pose a threat to public safety, and hence do not need treatment as much as convicted offenders, then why criminalize them in the first place?

Most important, there is nothing in the language of Measure 26-45 or 26-42 that limits mandatory treatment only to drug offenders who have committed real crimes, let alone real crimes engendered by drug abuse. (If experience elsewhere is any guide, such programs will be used to shelter the rich, white and well-connected from having to mingle with the general population and to some degree from being their "girlfriends.") However, the results are still cost-ineffective, even if one assumes county officials will bother to weigh distinctions. (One assumes they do so to a small extent now, but routinely doing so would seem to entail a significant commitment of time and money to review case histories. After all, if "70 percent of the inmates in Multnomah County's jails test positive for drugs," then 150 treatment beds require yet another bureaucracy of triage.)

Even if one assumes that all prisoners receiving treatment have already caused other real crimes attributable to their drug abuse, the cost-ineffective results remain the same. Thus in all three equations above, mandatory treatment in jail for every 100 prisoners would always prevent 75 criminal careers. But the same tax revenue in each equation would also still pay for at least 700 outpatient treatment opportunities. Those voluntary treatment programs would have to be only 11 percent successful in all three cases to prevent more crime than prison programs. In other words, even if only 76 or more people out of every 700 with substance-abuse problems serious enough for them to voluntarily seek treatment avoided criminal careers by doing so, that would still be more cost effective than prison-treatment programs. So why hasn't the Oregonian clamored for voluntary treatment programs?

It would seem reasonable to take the view that Oregonian editors love prisons more than they hate crime or even drug abuse.

A free press should not mean license to railroad public policy. The Oregonian has a responsibility not only to consider other opinions and options, but to investigate and report them fairly.

The Portland mass media will likely get their new jail beds, unless the rules on how to wage a propaganda campaign in a statist society need updating. But Oregonian editors and other local mass media have set Multnomah County taxpayers on a collision course with fiscal reality. The policy they are fostering will lower everyone's quality of life with higher taxes, more crime, more drug trafficking and abuse and an ever-widening rift between those who live in ivory towers and those who live in the real world. The Oregonian and other local mass media can fool most of the people most of the time - even in a land already pre-eminent in prisons - but a moment's reflection should suggest to most normally intelligent people that spending 60 percent of the public safety budget to disrupt maybe five percent of an illicit market is going to bankrupt the public long before it bankrupts the market. Under current policy, building more jails is fiscally unsustainable and only postpones the day of reckoning for America's counterproductive drug policy, while dramatically driving up its costs to Multnomah County residents.

Phil Smith
Northeast Portland
(for confirmation: 236-5288)

* as documented in Portland NORML's web page pages at: http://www.pdxnorml.org/040496.html#ldt

[End "letter to editor"]

Please folks - vote no on new jails.

Please urge your neighbors to do the same.

While you're at it, feel free to offer your own constructive opinions. According to the same edition:

The Editorial Page editor is Robert J. Caldwell.

The Editorial Page telephone is (503) 221-8150

The "Public Editor" (in-house ombudsman) is at (503) 221-8221.

The "Letters to the Editor" fax number is (503) 294-4193

The e-mail address is letters@news.oregonian.com.

Thanks for your consideration.

Phil Smith, volunteer
Portland chapter, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Portland NORML)
Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)
P.O. Box 9192
Portland, OR 97207

See the Portland NORML web pages at http://www.pdxnorml.org/

Researchers are welcome at the world's largest online library of drug policy information. The Drug Reform Coordination Network gateway is at http://www.druglibrary.org/



Back to the History of Oregon Reform Efforts page.

This URL: http://www.pdxnorml.org/just_say_no_to_new_jails051996.html