With nearly 14,000 in state prisons and another 35,000 under correctional supervision, criminal justice has been one of Oregon’s most recession-proof industries, reports The Oregonian. The corrections budget has grown at a 20 percent clip each biennium since 1995, and every household in the state pays $1,414 every two years to fund corrections. With a $4 billion state budget shortfall, legislators have tough choices to make about crime and punishment. If any real reform is to be made, it must pass one giant hurdle: Voter-passed initiatives.
In 1994, the public approved a measure that mandated much longer sentences for 16 crimes. That drove the number of inmates in the state much higher, while keeping them there longer. Lawmakers face either overhauling the criminal justice system or continuing down the same path, watching corrections eat up more and more revenue. Some legislators and the head of the Department of Corrections, a former Republican legislator, are quietly pushing for a new approach to criminal justice — one that allows for a range of sanctions for lawbreakers so fewer people end up in prison. “This is a structural nightmare. This is the box the Legislature is in,” said Max Williams, director of Oregon’s Department of Corrections. “If we can’t change the size of the box, we are going to be stuck.”