PRISON REFORM rolled out of Salem last summer with big numbers and high hopes clanging after it like tin cans on a wedding day limo.
When House Bill 3194 cleared the Oregon House of Representatives in late June, Governor John Kitzhaber crowed that the legislation would curb the state's prison growth for at least five years. In just two years, the so-called Justice Reinvestment Program was expected to spur more than $19 million in savings ["Out of the Frying Pan," News, October 9].
At the same time, reform had its detractors—people who believed Oregon is already a national leader in prison policy and didn't need change. It's safe to say a lot of people remain anxious to see how well the provisions of HB 3194 will actually work out.
So when the Oregonian reported in late January that the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) is sometimes packed with 200 more prisoners than it budgeted for, and needed $90 million to help shore up costs, it set off alarm bells among state and local justice officials.
"People are touchy," says Craig Prins, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, which is presiding over the program's rollout. "I think the article overstated it, and folks probably overreacted."
But the Oregonian was correct. The DOC is grappling with about 200 more prisoners than budgeted for, according to its budget analyst. It's strapped for cash, too. So is Oregon's much-vaunted prison reform already failing?
Probably not. The law changes haven't caused the prisoner reductions analysts expected. But the situation isn't as dire as the funding numbers suggest.
That's because of the imperfect—and inadequate—way the DOC was funded during last year's legislative session.
When lawmakers crafted a new two-year budget in 2013, they made assumptions based on a version of HB 3194 that didn't survive. That was a more robust bill, one that—to the chagrin of some Oregon prosecutors and sheriffs—stripped mandatory minimum sentences for certain violent crimes (and was expected to lead to greater cost savings).
It's also the bill state analysts used when completing a prison population forecast in April 2013.
But the legislation that landed on Kitzhaber's desk was milder. It eliminated prison time for some marijuana and driving offenses, shortened sentences for third-degree robbery, and granted earlier release for good behavior. Even so, analysts predicted it was powerful enough to stave off the need for a new prison for at least five years.
The problem is lawmakers based their budget on the April analysis and the earlier version of the bill. By the time a revamped forecast was released in October, it was too late. At the same time, legislators had withheld 2 percent of state agencies' general fund budgets and enacted millions in additional cuts to the DOC.
All of which means: The department's in a financial pickle.
But Prins and other officials insist the Justice Reinvestment Program is chugging along.
"Bottom line: I think the Oregonian was premature," Prins wrote in an email to the Mercury. "There is no story."
Prins' argument, detailed in a list of "talking points" he circulated to officials after the news coverage, obtained by the Mercury, is that HB 3194 is actually hewing fairly closely to the most recent prison forecast in October—the version that was able to account for the final draft of the prison reform bill.
So for instance, on January 31, the DOC held 204 more prisoners than its budget accounts for. But it was actually 75 prisoners above the October forecast. On February 3, the DOC was 168 inmates over budget, Prins said, but held 36 inmates more than the forecast.
"I kid the guys in my office I feel like a day trader of prisoners," says Prins, who's not concerned that the inmate population is still higher than projections. "When we're within 100, we feel like we're pretty well on track."
But he acknowledges that's cold comfort to the DOC, which finds itself fairly desperate for additional money.
Linda Gilbert, who scrutinizes the department's finances as a budget manager with the Oregon Department of Administrative Services, says the DOC is going to ask for $41 million in this year's legislative session.
The particulars of that request weren't yet public as of press time. But Gilbert says the money would help account for $26 million withheld from the agency in the 2014-2015 budget, as well as more than $50 million in budget cuts.
The inflated prisoner numbers haven't helped.
"I think people are surprised that the number went up instead of down," says Gilbert. "Clearly we're going to watch it."