County program that started in 2013 was designed to reduce use of prison

TRIBUNE FILE PHOTO - Many Oregon counties are using state Justice Reinvestment Program funds to keep some offenders out of state prisons.Ten of Oregon’s 36 counties have scaled back use of the state’s prison system for property and drug crimes since receiving a total of $15 million in grant money last year intended to avoid the expense of expanding prison space.

The purpose of the state’s Justice Reinvestment Fund is to pay for transitional housing, substance abuse treatment and other county-level support services needed to keep certain offenders out of prison. Lawmakers created the grant program in 2013 with the hope of reducing the influx of offenders into the prison system and thereby delaying or avoiding costs associated with expanding prison space. In 2014-15, the Legislature approved $15 million in grant money. Lawmakers upped that amount to $40 million for this biennium.

Results of the investment appear to have paid off in two of the state’s most populous counties — Multnomah and Lane — as well as in several smaller counties. Multnomah County, for instance, reduced the number of months offenders convicted of property and drug crimes spent in prison from 9,765 months in 2013-14 to 7,877 months in 2014-15.

“The reality is if we don’t invest in the right things we will end up building a prison, and it will be a huge expense for our state, and no one will win,” said Suzanne Hayden, member of the Multnomah County Local Public Safety Coordinating Council.

Crook, Grant, Josephine, Malheur, Sherman and Wallowa also had reductions in prison months spent by drug and property offenders during that period, but those numbers may not be an accurate reflection of justice reinvestment outcomes, said Ross Caldwell, justice reinvestment liaison at the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. One crime spree can skew the statistics, Caldwell said.

“None of these numbers tell the whole story,” he said. “Some of the timber counties don’t have the resources to arrest people and then prosecute them. You might look at these numbers and say they aren’t sending as many people to prison, but it may not be that they are doing anything different.”


'More informed sentencing'

Criminal justice and public safety advocates say the program is still too new to judge its success. The criminal justice commission needs at least three years of data on prison intakes and recidivism rates to evaluate whether the justice reinvestment program is meeting its goals, Caldwell said.

In Multnomah County, public safety and criminal justice officials started three years ago to coordinate efforts to reduce the number of offenders sent to prison. “It has transformed our criminal justice program locally,” Hayden said.

The county assesses the risk of offenders who face prison time and determine any treatment they may need and resources that may be available to them. That information is passed on to the judge, district attorney and defense attorney. The offender is then given services at the time of sentencing. If the district attorney and judge see that support services in place, they are less likely to want to give the offender prison time.

“More informed sentencing is something that could be translated to any county,” Hayden said.

COURTESY OF PAUL SOLOMON - Paul Solomon, vice chairman of Lane County Public Safety Coordinating Council and executive director of Sponsors Inc. in Eugene
In Lane County, property and drug offenders spent 508 months fewer months in prison between 2013-14 and 2014-15, from 9,507 to 8,999. Lane County has used the grant money to increase support for released prisoners and to build up programs that allow offenders to avoid higher sentences by completing treatment or other programs, said Paul Solomon, vice chairman of the county’s Public Safety Coordinating Council.

Historically, Lane County has sent offenders convicted of property crimes to prison for an average of 40 months, about 15 months longer than most other counties. The disparity stemmed from a lack of jail beds in Lane County, Solomon said. The county depends on federal timber revenue, which has declined in recent years and eroded public safety programs.

The community passed a levy in 2013 to add more jail beds. The addition of those beds along with the programs paid for with the grant money has helped the county to reduce those sentences, Solomon said.

Governor meets with counties

In October, lawmakers indicated they might have to dip into the justice reinvestment fund to pay for adding more prison beds at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras in early 2016.

If that’s the case, lawmakers could decide to proportionally reduce the amount of each county’s grant or award grant money on a merit basis.

“What I don’t want to do is defund programs we know are working,” said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.

Coming up with a way to judge merit would be challenging because each county is so different and the program is still new, Williamson said.

Gov. Kate Brown plans to meet with counties Nov. 10 in Salem to discuss the future of the justice reinvestment program and the possible Deer Ridge expansion.

Paris Achen is a reporter with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau in Salem.

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