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Dispute between victims group and Pew Center

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

The Pew Center’s numbers on prison spending in Oregon [The Prisontown Myth, April] are misleading at best and more to the point, intellectually disingenuous. Since you accepted Pew’s numbers, your readers received a skewed perspective on actual prison spending in Oregon.

You regurgitate Pew’s claim that Oregon spends a larger percentage of its general fund on corrections than any other state. Pew puts this at 10.9%. Figures from the Oregon Legislative Fiscal Office’s budget analysis show that it is 9%. And this includes $225 million for community corrections: parole, probation, treatment and other non-prison items. Spending on prisons is less than 7.5% of Oregon’s general fund budget.

You also regurgitate Pew’s claim that Oregon spends more on prisons than higher education. However, figures from the Legislative Fiscal Office show that Oregon’s general fund budget for prisons is about $1 billion while the general fund budget for higher education, including community colleges, OHSU and student assistance, is $1.57 billion. Accounting for federal tax dollars leaves prisons at $1 billion and raises higher education to $2 billion.

Completely missing from your article was any hint of what prisons have done for Oregon public safety. From 1960 to 1985, Oregon’s violent crime rate increased by nearly 700% during which time we built one new prison with a capacity of 400 beds. The governor and the director of the Department of Corrections at the time both acknowledged that lack of prison beds left Oregon’s criminal justice system in crisis. Violent crime remained roughly flat near peak levels for the next 10 years. From 1995 to 2006, while Oregon’s prison population doubled, our violent crime rate decreased by 46%, the second-largest decrease of any state during that period. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission estimated that increased incarceration from 1995 to 2005 resulted in 98,786 crimes being avoided in 2005 alone.

I don’t disagree with your basic premise that prisons don’t result in economic growth — that’s not their purpose. The purpose is public safety, something policymakers ignored for decades. As a business entity, you understand that with this record of neglect, at some point you have to pay off the credit card.

Steve Doell
Crime Victims United of Oregon

The Pew Center responds:

Steve Doell questions a statistic cited in our recent study (“One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008”) that Oregon spent 10.9% of its general fund dollars on corrections in FY07, the highest proportion in the country.

That figure was reported by the state’s Department of Administrative Services to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO). NASBO data is widely considered to be authoritative and is used commonly to compare state spending priorities and trends in a number of policy arenas.

Mr. Doell cites figures from a different source, but even if you use his numbers (9% for all corrections agencies and 7.5% for prisons only), the corrections share of Oregon’s general fund still would rank among the highest in the country, either third or tied with Louisiana for 11th, respectively.

He also questions our report’s comparison of Oregon’s corrections to higher education spending. These numbers also come from the official NASBO reports, and were recently confirmed by Oregon’s Budget and Management Division. Mr. Doell’s re-analysis includes only prisons, ignoring other state-funded corrections agencies.

More importantly, Oregon is currently spending more on corrections than it is on higher education. Twenty years ago, the state only spent 34 cents on corrections for every dollar spent on higher education, and today it spends $1.06 on corrections for every higher education dollar.

There is no doubt that putting more people in prison over the past 25 years helped cut the crime rate. But with 1 in 100 adults now behind bars and states facing billion-dollar deficits, the more relevant question is: are there more cost-effective ways to enhance public safety?

Oregon’s community corrections agencies know the answer. They’ve earned a well-deserved reputation for high-quality supervision, sanctions and services that not only cut recidivism but also require offenders to hold down a job so they can pay taxes, child support and restitution to their victims.

Adam Gelb
Director, Public Safety Performance Project

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The Pew Center on the States


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