Sentencing reforms seek to reduce incarceration rate, racial profiling
SALEM — Hillsboro resident Beth Hacker could have served nearly three years in prison for theft and forgery crimes she says were fueled by her addiction to oxycodone, the prescription opioid.
A legislative effort in 2015 to help keep families together spared the mother of four that fate.
Hacker was in and out of jail between May 2014 and April 2016 for probation violations and a spate of convictions, including stealing from a friend and lying on a rental assistance application. She eventually was admitted to a work-release program called the Family Sentencing Alternative Program, designed by state lawmakers in 2015 to keep families together and parents out of prison.
"If I would have gotten into it earlier, then there wouldn't have been a long jail sentence prior to going into the program, and I don't believe I would have lost custody of my children," Hacker said. "I would have been there for them.
"Had I not had the program at all, I would have been in prison for 30 months."
During this year's legislative session, state lawmakers continued to reform sentences and expand prison alternative programs, in an effort to reduce incarceration and curtail disproportionate felony drug convictions of people of color.
"This was a step in the right direction," said Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center. "We are beginning to see a public health approach to criminal justice that makes more sense, but it should be considered only an initial step. We need to move further."
Kevin Neely, a lobbyist for the Oregon District Attorneys Association, said people can debate about whether someone such as Hacker deserved jail time.
"Kiting a check or lying on a Community Outreach application ... all have victims," Neely said.
"Prison is only used in the worst cases in Oregon, and unless the crime is extremely violent, offenders almost always get two or three chances at probation."
House Bill 3078 expanded the eligibility criteria for the Family Sentencing Alternative Pilot Program so more parents can participate. The legislation decreased sentences for first-degree theft and identity theft — both Measure 57 crimes — from 18 months down to 13 months, while adding more community supervision. Lawmakers targeted those two crimes to reduce the women's prison population and avoid needing to open a second state women's prison. Women are statistically more likely to commit property crimes than violent crimes.
The bill also increases the limit for a supportive early-release program, known as short-term transitional leave, from 90 to 120 days.
House Bill 2355, crafted as an anti-racial profiling bill, also reduces sentences for possession of six controlled substances by downgrading the crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. People of color are disproportionately charged with drug crimes, even though they use drugs at the same rate as people who appear Caucasian, Singh said.
Opposition to those changes prompted lawmakers to include previous convictions as a disqualifying factor.
Singh said the disqualifying factor still discriminates against people of color, because they have a greater rate of conviction.
"If the whole point of enacting the law is to begin thinking about addiction and substance abuse as a public health issue, but you put in a disqualification for repeated behavior, the law is not working fully to do what it is purported to do," Singh said. "We are talking about behavior that by definition is repetitive."
The bill requires the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to examine the effects of the changes on people of color.
Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, who said he was "100 percent behind" the anti-racial profiling measures, nevertheless voted against the bill.
"Measure 57 was driven because people understand that the property crimes that exist today 85 percent of the time are done because of drug use," Olson said. "My concern is … you are going to see property crime go up at the same time."
The United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the world, according to the Institute for Criminal Policy Research at Birkbeck University of London. Our country represents about 4.4 percent of the world population and 22 percent of prisoners around the world.
The following drug possession crimes were downgraded to a misdemeanor unless the offender has a previous felony or two controlled substance convictions:
- Less than 40 user units of psychedelic mushrooms
- Less than 40 pills or units of prescription drug opioids, oxycodone or methadone
- Less than 1 gram of heroin
- Less than to 1 gram or five pills of ecstasy
- Less than 2 grams of cocaine
- Less than 2 grams of methamphetamine
The presumptive sentence for first-degree theft and identity theft, both Measure 57 offenses, were reduced from 18 months to 13 months, unless the offender has a previous conviction of first-degree aggravated theft, first- or second-degree robbery or possession of a stolen vehicle; or four previous convictions of 19 crimes.
The changes are effective the day Gov. Kate Brown signs the legislation into law.