SALEM — Several proposals in the Legislature would stave off the need to open an expensive second women's prison in the midst of Oregon's $1.6 billion revenue shortfall, according to initial projections.
'What we do not want to have to do is open new prisons," said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, D-Beaverton. "The last thing the state can afford to do is put more and more of our hard-earned dollars into prisons instead of education and health care and the human services that will prevent people from interacting with the criminal justice system in the first place."
Two bills to expand eligibility for the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program received widespread support from criminal justice reformers and law enforcement during legislative hearings Tuesday and Wednesday, April 4-5.
Another bill to expand the length of an early release program from 90 to 180 days for inmates convicted of nonviolent property and drug crimes faces opposition from the Oregon District Attorneys Association.
The Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program diverts the parents of minor children from prison and allows them to stay in the community under supervision. The offenders also receive wraparound services such as drug treatment or parenting classes.
Last year, 75 parents participated in the program in five counties: Multnomah, Washington, Marion, Deschutes and Jackson. That helped to keep 139 children out of foster care, according to a report by the Department of Human Services and the Department of Corrections.
"Women oftentimes have child abuse or sexual abuse histories. In turn, they develop mental health issues and then they start self-medicating through drugs and alcohol, poor relationships, (and) eventually end up participating in drug offenses, property crime," said Tira Hubbard, a parole and probation officer in Jackson County. "That rolls them into the criminal justice system. By just treating the addiction and the criminality and not looking at those underlying root causes, we're just treating the symptoms and not the virus."
Speakers at hearings in the House and Senate judiciary committees unanimously supported two bills that would open up the program to pregnant women. Some pregnant women who otherwise qualified for the program were rejected and were sent to prison.
"Having a baby in prison is a really, really rough situation," said Rep. Tawna Sanchez, D-Portland, who has worked extensively for social justice organizations. After giving birth, the women have to "immediately give the child to someone else," Sanchez said.
The other bill to expand an early release program called Short-Term Transitional Leave is provoking more controversy. The proposal would expand the 90-day program to 180 days.
Inmates who don't have a mandatory minimum sentence and have no violations in the past 12 months are eligible for the program. In the first two years, program failures were minimal, according to the CJC.
Nevertheless, district attorneys have come out against the expansion, citing a 2013 agreement with the then-House Majority Leader and two now-retired lawmakers not to revisit sentencing changes for at least five years.
"The most important reason I oppose (the bill) is it erodes an important pillar of a good justice system and that is truth in sentencing," said Linn County District Attorney Doug Marteeny.
Marteeny said victims may be unaware that an offender won't have to serve all of his or her sentence.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, responded that it's prosecutors' job to let victims know how the system works.
The expansion would postpone the need to open a second women's prison by at least two years, according to analysis by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. The cost of opening the second facility would be about $9.5 million.
The population at the state's only women's prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville, has hovered above capacity for more than a year. The limit is 1,280. On Wednesday, April 15, the population was 1,298, according to DOC.
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau