Illustration by Brett Superstar

IF YOU BELIEVE the forecasts (and, no, not everyone does), Oregon's already-stuffed prisons are facing a budget-busting crisis in the coming decade.

Unless something changes, as many as 2,000 more inmates will join the 14,000 our state already houses in 14 prisons—forcing the state to spend $600 million to reopen closed cells and build new ones.

That threat—following years of budget cuts, and coming at the expense of starving schools and social programs—has pushed Governor John Kitzhaber into some deep soul-searching on the best ways to cut prison costs without compromising public safety. His Commission on Public Safety is poised to release a sweeping set of fixes in time for next year's legislative session.

Those fixes are expected to include some kind of sentencing reform. But one of the most radical ideas under consideration—giving counties a financial incentive to reduce prison sentences—may never make it out alive, the Mercury has learned.

Despite cautious interest from some lawmakers and other officials—and the emergence of quiet champions like City Commissioner-elect Steve Novick—hard-line district attorneys are lining up against a plan they worry would free dangerous criminals and fall short of promises to actually send money back to counties. They also worry that projections for the rising inmate population are too high.

"There are people who ideologically want to reduce sentences," says Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, a member of the governor's commission. "It has nothing to do with cost. It has nothing to do with anything else. It is bad public policy and it will lead to bad results."

And, perhaps most troublesome for the idea, even prosecutors known for being "reasonable" about their approach to sentencing are keeping quiet.

Rod Underhill, who will take over as Multnomah County district attorney in January after serving as the office's longtime deputy, wouldn't say whether he supported the idea or not.

His office, the largest in the state and known for its commitment to measures like diversion programs, would be an important laboratory for deciding the shape of any incentive program. And his imprimatur would go a long way toward overcoming whatever concerns his colleagues had.

"There are a number of ideas being talked about," he said. "There are some ideas surrounding incentives that I have concerns about. That doesn't mean there aren't ideas we don't want to continue to talk about."

The incentive idea could work something like this: Instead of sentencing someone to, say, 65 months in prison, a prosecutor would instead ask for something like 51 months. The state would send the county funding equivalent to the cost of those 14 months. And the county would use that money for underfunded priorities like mental health counseling, drug addiction programs, or post-sentence reentry programs.

Counties would love to get their hands on that kind of money—which arguably does more to keep people from committing crimes than punishment alone.

"It's proven work—work that helps people get back on their feet at less of a cost to society than having somebody sit in a prison cell," says Multnomah County spokesman David Austin, pointedly not commenting on whether the county supports sentence-reduction incentives. "It's worth the money to try to do those kinds of things."

The governor's commission, which is working closely with the Pew Center on the States, a national policy think tank, will likely include some kind of sentencing reform. Kitzhaber, according to the Oregonian, all but said as much when speaking to commission members in September—exhorting them not to heed skeptics who "use fear and emotion to drive public policy by anecdote."

But instead of attacking prison sentences, the reforms pushed by the commission might tackle something that's less politically fraught: a costly revolving door that sees parolees and convicts on probation cycle in and out of prison over minor violations.

Oregon wouldn't be blazing any trails, though, if it does go after sentences. A handful of states, including Arkansas, Texas, and Illinois, have already launched similar pilot programs, according to Pew research.

Jake Horowitz, state policy director for Pew's Public Safety Performance Project, said a surprising coalition of liberal reformers and groups like the Tea Party have banded together in the name of reform. He praised Oregon as more forward thinking than most states but also cautioned that the subject isn't simple.

"If it were easy," he said, "other states would be jumping on this."