In the next two years, Oregon will spend tens of millions more tax money to lock up inmates than it does to educate students at community colleges and state universities, reports The Oregonian. The trend results from more than a decade of explosive prison growth largely fueled by Measure 11, a 1994 ballot initiative that mandated lengthy sentences for violent crimes. Since then, the number of inmates has nearly doubled and spending on prisons has nearly tripled.
University of Oregon President Dave Frohnmayer has warned of a “growing crisis in Oregon and nationally at the intersection of corrections systems and other public priorities.” The state budget essentially is a zero-sum game. Education, human services, and public safety account for 93 percent of spending. Without tax increases, money that goes to one of those isn’t available for the others. The federal and state prison population has grown from 190,000 in 1970 to 1.5 million by 2005, due in large part to tough-on-crime laws that imposed longer sentences for violent and habitual offenders. Prof. William Spelman of the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas says the effectiveness of an incarceration strategy “depends mostly on who you’re putting in that prison bed. If you are putting away drug offenders or burglars, it’s almost certainly a waste of taxpayer money. If they’re armed robbers, maybe it does make sense.”