June Buck, with her curly grey hair and thin, gentle voice looks and sounds like the retired Medford school teacher that she is. When she speaks, though, she pushes a lie: Oregon has failed to invest in schools.
Buck spoke briefly at the second hearing of the Commission on Public Safety. She suggested that schools are growing poor while prisons are growing rich. This is what state Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul DeMuniz wants to hear.
He chairs the Commission on Public Safety, which is looking at how to reduce mandatory minimum prison sentences for violent crimes, primarily Measure 11 sentences approved overwhelmingly by voters.
The commission is supposed to file a report of its findings by December. DeMuniz has made it clear from the commission’s first meeting in September what he wants those findings to be. (See “Deep in the Heart of Oregon”)
“We have to make the public understand that we can make communities safer with less cost,” he told the Medford Mail-Tribune before the hearing held Oct. 21 in Ashland.
Translation: He wants to persuade the public that it’s OK to overhaul Measure 11, that some violent felons and repeat offenders can be safely freed to save money.
Here’s where people like Buck come in. DeMuniz needs them to perform their part in a deliberately constructed either/or scenario: Either we let more inmates out of prison, or the state’s schools and other services are going to suffer dire cutbacks.
When Buck, who has lobbied on behalf of the Oregon Education Association, appeared before the commission she repeated a popular refrain about the state’s responsiblity to “medicate, educate and incarcerate.”
What she didn’t address was why the state has done a better job of incarceration than education. It isn’t a matter of money.
In the 2009-2011 budget, education received almost six times as much of the general fund (plus lottery money) than the Department of Corrections (minus no lottery money). Education received $7.37 billion vs. 1.25 billion for the Department of Corrections (of that amount, $221 million are Measure 11 costs).
So why has the state done a better job of incarceration than education? Because the public – through the initiative process – forced changes that politicians and bureaucrats wouldn’t make on their own. No one (certainly not the Oregon Education Association) has attempted to make the substantive changes that would lead to improvements in education. (See “More Kids Left Behind.”)
Measure 11, which passed in 1994, did what supporters promised. From 1996 to 2002, Oregon had the largest drop in reported violent crime than any other state. Violent crime dropped 44 percent here vs. 28 percent in the U.S. as a whole. Crime has continued to drop. From 1995 to 2009, Oregon’s drop in violent crime ranked second on the FBI’s Uniform Crime Report.
Opponents will point to drops in crime elsewhere as evidence that Measure 11 alone is not responsible, but that ignores that many states throughout the 1990’s and early 2000’s also passed their own laws requiring tougher and more truthful sentencing. For example, at least 24 states have a variation on three-strikes-and-you’re-out.
At its first public hearing, the commission devoted much discussion to how superior Texas corrections has become. That theme continued during the commission’s second hearing. (Nobody mentioned that Texas’s drop in violent crime ranked 28th in the union.)
Rep. Jerry Madden, chairman of the corrections committee in the Texas House of Representatives, shared his state’s experience on how they stopped building prisons but still lowered crime.
The commission had already heard theories that the drop in crime was due to the decline in men between the ages of 19 and 35. Madden offered other explanations: Better-trained police, technology that helps catch criminals, DNA that helps convict them and generational differences in raising kids.
Baby boomers were hippies, and the emphasis was on the individual, Madden said. “Everybody was thinking about themselves … their kids, the Generation X’ers, got really poor parenting. … (That generation decided) I’m not going to raise my kids like my parents raised me.”
Madden explained how politicians sold the Texas public on reducing prison sentences: “We’re going to spend less of your tax money and make you safer.”
They also enlisted the media.
“We had wonderful media …,” Madden said. “You certainly want to work with the press – ‘What do you think of locking up the bad guys but providing treatment for the others?’”
This concept is called “justice reinvestment,” and it involves shifting money from prisons to increased parole and probation supervision and to various services ranging from drug treatment (hardly a new concept in Oregon) to an all-encompassing re-entry program for prisoners, including employment and other services.
Commissioner and state Sen. Andy Olson (R-Albany), who is a retired State Police lieutenant, was concerned about the risks of letting violent offenders go free, and having officials turn their heads away from problems that might come up.
“It’s something you have to watch,” Madden said. “Make sure you got the numbers.”
At times, numbers dominated the hearing. It was as if human behavior was so predictable it could be reduced to an algebraic equation.
Michael Wilson, economist for the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, referred to a “victimization cost” national study done in 1997 and updated in 2010 that tried to put a dollar sign on being a crime victim.
Some of the costs were straightforward and tangible – the loss of the value of something stolen; the missed work by an assault victim; the cost of hospitalization.
Wilson didn’t dwell on intangible costs. Typically, the studies use court case findings about pain and suffering and wage differentials to establish the value of a human life.
“Intangible costs are a little bit squishy,” he said.
Each time Wilson cited another study, another set of statistics showing how much money could be saved by releasing inmates from prison and how much safer the public would be, De Muniz nodded his head up and down.
It was exactly what he wanted to hear.
– Pamela Fitzsimmons