Oregon Public Empowerment News
In Oregon, where are we now spend more on prisons run by the Department of Corrections than on public four-year universities, what is right in front of our noses is that the way we decide how long criminals should spend in prison is not only bankrupting us in the present moment, it is sowing the seeds of economic inequality and social weakness for generations to come, because excessive spending on incarceration deprives us of public goods that promote prosperity. We are trapped in an arms race against crime where bad policies cause more of the ills we are trying to cure and result in the public providing the funding for both sides of the arms race.....
The criminal justice system in Oregon, as in
the rest of United States, runs on pretty much the exact same model as
it did at the time of statehood, which is the frontier model – the judge
ran the trials and selected the sentences. There was no one else to do
But the practices appropriate for a time when government was
sparse and crimes were few are not those that are appropriate today.
we have a vast criminal justice system, where the Department of
Corrections alone – just a part of the system – plans to spend $1.6
billion in the next two years. And yet the critical decisions that drive
all that spending are still made, one by one, in isolation and with no
consideration of the overall context. Before sentencing guidelines and
mandatory minimums, those decisions were at least made by judges. Now
they are made by district attorneys (prosecutors).
two key offices are filled by local elections. Thus, the two key actors,
the people who have the most power to who determine what the state will
spend on incarceration for decades to comes, not only have no special
skill, training, or background in criminal sentencing, they also have
zero accountability for the results of their decisions, except in the
sense of being subject to popular hostility for a sentence that is seen
as excessively lenient.
Thus, the rules for the game – game
rather than system because the major key players (prosecutors) and the
minor players (judges) have neither the opportunity or incentive to
consider anything but the case before them, leads predictably to our
present budgetary disaster.
There is nothing wrong with our
judges or prosecutors. This is not about them as human beings or as
honest public servants. We should not seek nor expect to find a better
class of prosecutors or judges. Nor should we expect that there is any
way to exhort them or educate them or persuade them to be more
thoughtful, better informed, and to have a broader perspective. The
title of a famous business magazine article says it best: “On the folly
of rewarding A while hoping for B.”
No, the solution isn’t to
think that there is some better class of people who would not seek to
maximize their own career success by racking up the convictions and
doing whatever necessary to avoid the fatal “soft on crime” label. The
solution is to move sentencing away from judges entirely, after
scrapping entirely the ill-fated project of mandatory minimums that have
put so much power in the hands of prosecutors who have no
accountability for the costs that they impose on the rest of us.
is, what Oregon needs to do is make the system into a true system by
unifying all the pieces of the process that we loosely call the
“criminal justice system” into one budget, and putting felony sentencing
into the hands of a state sentencing panel, which would be the
body responsible for assessing all the felony inmates as a whole and
setting sentences so that the goals of imprisonment are pursued in view
of all the sentences to be determined, rather than one-by-one by
self-interested actors who have no visibility to anything except the
case before them.
The unified global state budget would include
all the current prison and prison alternatives, from drug treatment and
alcoholism programs, community corrections, reentry programs for those
emerging from prison.
The existing system of prosecutors and
judges would remain, but they would not decide felony sentences. Rather,
when an offender is convicted of a felony, the case would be sent to
the state sentencing panel, which would be responsible for setting the
terms and conditions of the sentence, in light of not just that
individual’s crimes but also in light of all the other offenders to be
sentenced that year, as well as the day-by-day forecasts for prison beds
for the entire length of the contemplated sentences.
definition, a felony sentence is for at least a year. Each person would
begin serving their felony sentence and, within 12 months, the
sentencing panel would set the final sentence. The offender could seek a
hearing to argue for sentencing reductions or alternative sentencing,
and the crime victims could appear and give testimony about the crimes
and their effect on the victims. But the sentencing panel would itself
be a third actor, and the staff would be charged with presenting a
sentencing proposal that is based on both the severity of the crime in
the rankings of all the sentences and an effort to specify a sentence
that maximizes the chance for successful re-entry to society after the
sentence is served.