Cascadia NewsNet

Russell Sadler's "Oregon Outlook" for the week of April 8, 1996

Making prisons top state industry is not in our interest

Demagoguery of the crime issue seems an easy choice for some policymakers

By Russell Sadler

Oregon's new growth industry is not tourism. It is not high technology. It is not service industry. It is prisons. State corrections officials say new mandatory sentencing laws will require doubling Oregon's prison beds in the next decade. Oregon is following a trend.

California prison officials are demanding a $2 billion bond issue in the Land of Proposition 13. The prison building boom is not limited to the West Coast. America set a new record in the last 12 months. The United States now locks up a larger percentage of its population than any country on the face of the planet. Do you feel safer? Polls say you do not. The population in state and federal prisons grew by nearly 90,000 in the last 12 months. That is the equivalent of adding 1,725 beds a week to the prison system. That is a record. Do you feel safer? Polls say you do not. There are more than 1,000,000 inmates in state and federal prisons. That is a record. Do you feel safer? Polls show you do not.

Ironically, the conservatives who want to shrink government because they think it is too big are adopting laws that make prisons one of the fastest growing bureaucracies in the country and the fastest growing business in Oregon. Conservatives who criticize liberals for throwing tax money at social problem are throwing tax money at crime on a grand scale.

A growing share of state and federal budgets are going to prisons while the federal government and many state legislatures are reducing the money they spend per student in schools and colleges. Conservative legislators force up tuition and refuse to appropriate more money to colleges and universities because a $25,000 a year subsidy to students is too much. The same conservatives are willing to build prisons at $19,000 a bed to house more inmates who cost Oregon taxpayers $38,000 a year to guard.

Oregon still has more college students than cons. It is the trend that is ominous. In 1980 Oregon had about 2,000 inmates crammed into its aging state penitentiary and several hundred inmates in county jails. Today, there are nearly 8,200 inmates occupying the state's growing county jail and state prison beds. As the wag said, "If you build it, they will come." The Field of Fiscal Dreams is rapidly becoming the Field of Fiscal Nightmares.

Voters are as much to blame as politicians for the trend. State Rep. Kevin Mannix, D-Salem, demanded lengthy sentences on juveniles who commit certain crimes. A majority of the Legislature refused to go along.

Cooler heads on the budget-writing Ways and Means Committee quietly insisted Mannix was a grandstanding lawyer planning to run for Attorney General. There was no evidence, insisted the Legislature's conservative budget-writers, longer sentences deterred crime or protected the public.

Mannix promptly filed an initiative petition mandating minimum sentences for certain juveniles and persuaded voters to approve it in 1994. In 1995 Mannix persuaded legislators to approve mandatory minimum sentences for certain property crimes. In 1996 Mannix filed to run for Attorney General. There was little discussion about the cost of these sentencing laws. Now the bills are coming due. The cost is hidden and it is high.

Oregon corrections officials say they will be building prisons for the next 20 years. The state's prison capacity will have to double in the next decade. The corrections budget now has priority over Oregon's colleges and universities. There are about 8,000 fewer Oregon resident students in the state's four-year colleges and universities than there were in 1990. The prison population has grown by nearly the same amount in a slightly longer period. Conservative lawmakers object to "subsidizing" students but not convicts.

Last June, about two-thirds of Oregon's high school seniors with a B+ average or better - Oregon's brightest students - left the state to go to college and start their careers. Oregon continues spending scarce tax dollars on people who will never amount to anything at the expense of people who almost certainly will. This is a policy of eating your young.

The shortsightedness of this trend is apparent even to hardnosed law enforcement officers. The sheriffs of Jackson, Josephine and Curry counties held a news conference last winter to criticize the popular trend of jailing more and more people and urge lawmakers to spend more money on education, prevention and drug treatment. Sheriffs Bob Kennedy, John Pardon and Charles Denny do not have reputations as liberal bleeding hearts. Lawmakers and the voters who choose them need to heed the warning from other elected officials that politically fashionable policies are not working.

Other nations have lower crime rates without jailing as large a percentage of their population as we do. Perhaps we should find out if they know something we do not before we bankrupt ourselves pursuing failed conservative theories that win votes at the polls but do not make our lives any safer and may actually imperil our future.

Russell Sadler has covered Oregon government and politics for over twenty-five years. His weekly column is an analysis of state and national issues and is distributed by Cascadia News Service.



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