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Oregon Voters Choose Lesser Evil of Two Misguided Criminal Justice Measures

Jag Davies,
Drug Law Reform Project
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November 6, 2008

While this decade has seen some states shift away from the counterproductive “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” approach to nonviolent drug offenders, Oregon voters took a step backwards yesterday by approving Measure 57’s mandates for increased sentences and new “mandatory minimum” sentencing requirements for a range of crimes, many of them nonviolent drug crimes. However, Measure 61 — a competing measure that would have increased mandatory minimum sentencing even more drastically — will not go into effect because Measure 57 received more votes.

Measure 57, written by the Oregon legislature in response to Measure 61, increases sentences for manufacturing or dealing certain amounts methamphetamine, heroin, ecstasy or cocaine, as well as aggravated theft against the elderly. In addition, the measure requires judges to impose a minimum prison sentence and prohibits judges from ordering a lesser sentence — unlike current law, which allows judges to take into consideration an individual’s particular circumstances.

Measure 57 also requires increased sentences for many repeat property offenders and other drug offenders. Considering that many of these offenders suffer from untreated mental health and/or substance abuse problems, many would be more likely to become productive members of society if provided with treatment that addresses the underlying issues that lead them to commit crime in the first place — instead of long, mandatory prison terms once reserved only for violent criminals.

The inevitable harms of Measure 57 are slightly mitigated by the fact that it increases access to drug treatment programs for those who are incarcerated or on post-prison supervision or probation. Measure 57 also provides local counties with additional funding for drug courts, intensive supervision and jail beds to use as sanctions for those who fail to comply with conditions imposed by their treatment programs.

It’s a shame that Oregon voters were essentially forced to choose between two flawed measures that both rely primarily on a criminal justice-based approach to drug use, rather than a health-based approach. For the past generation, over-reliance on incarceration for nonviolent drug offenders has diverted resources away from other, more serious health and criminal justice priorities. Research has consistently demonstrated that alternatives to incarceration — particularly substance abuse treatment within the community — are more cost-effective and beneficial to public safety than increasing prison sentences, even for repeat offenders. According to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy, every dollar spent on drug treatment in the community is estimated to return $18.52 in benefits to society, compared to $5.88 for drug treatment in prison, or just $0.37 for each dollar spent on prison. As policy-makers around the nation start gearing up for the 2009 legislative sessions, they’d be wise to consider being “smart on crime” by implementing evidence-based, cost-effective alternatives to the lengthy incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.

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