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Put Measure 57 on hold.

Byline: The Register-Guard

The Oregon Legislature made a tough but necessary call in putting Measure 57 on last November's ballot. Now it should delay the sentencing law until the state emerges from its budgetary black hole.

Storm clouds were gathering on the state's economic horizon last year when lawmakers decided to refer the tough-on-crime initiative to voters. But even the most pessimistic lawmakers didn't have a clue that the state would end up facing a $3.8 billion shortfall.

Even then, lawmakers weren't enthusiastic about the prospect of increasing spending on corrections with a measure that increased prison sentences for nonviolent, repeat property and drug offenses. They understood that Measure 57 would bring an additional 1,600 non-violent inmates into the state's prison system at an estimated five-year cost of $411 million.

Lawmakers put Measure 57 on the ballot because they were under pressure to head off a more costly proposal - initiative gadfly Kevin Mannix's Measure 61. Mannix's plan would have increased the state's prison population by 13,700 inmates at a cost of up to $797 million in the first five years.

The Legislature's pre-emptive strike was a strategic success: Measure 57 passed, and Measure 61 failed. But the legislative initiative came with a price tag that included $314 million in borrowing to build new prisons.

Late last year, with the state's economic outlook souring, Gov. Ted Kulongoski released a proposed budget that fell $60 million short of what was needed to meet Measure 57's program standards. Critics, including this newspaper, called on the governor and Legislature to fully fund the measure.

Now, the state's economy has worsened by an order of magnitude, and the Legislature has no realistic choice but to delay Measure 57. It should do so, counting on voters to understand that the recession has changed the rules of the game and the Legislature intends to honor the will of voters as soon as it can.

There are no good alternatives.

Anti-crime groups want the governor to order early release of thousands of nonviolent offenders, a move that would save the state the money needed to adequately fund Measure 57. The governor notes that such blanket releases might exceed his authority and cites complications such as individual hearings that would have to be held before offenders could be released.

Delaying implementation of Measure 57 for two years would save the state $74 million. A legislative work group also may recommend the use of "earned time" be expanded to enable inmates to reduce sentences by up to 30 percent. These changes, along with a reclassification of possession of "user amounts" of drugs as misdemeanors rather than felonies, would reduce state spending on corrections and courts by $130 million.

A two-year delay would postpone construction of a prison near Junction City that would house a third of the inmates sentenced under Measure 57. That's not a welcome prospect, given the need for the jobs that the prison's construction and operation would generate. But the effects of a delay would be softened by the construction of a state mental hospital at the same site that is expected to proceed on schedule.

A delay also would give the state time to develop the drug and alcohol treatment programs mandated by Measure 57. The governor has proposed that the state use federal stimulus dollars to create an enhanced probation program, based on one with a proven track record in Hawaii, for repeat property and drug offenders who might otherwise face prison under Measure 57.

It won't be easy to delay Measure 57. The state constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Legislature to revise voter-approved measures. But lawmakers have no better choice. They should delay Measure 57, with the understanding that they will honor the will of voters as soon as the state's economy makes it possible.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; With huge defecit, state can't afford sentencing law
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:May 23, 2009
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