IDENTITY THIEVES can ruin anything in the digital age—including, it turns out, attempts to give them less prison time.
With a year of data to go by, the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) reaffirmed on Wednesday, October 1, that more lenient sentences are working to cut Oregon's prison growth, with a year-to-year reduction in prison use, and hundreds fewer prisoners than 2012 forecasts predicted.
But the announcement came with a surprising admission: All of the earlier estimates of the effects of those reforms had been flawed. Reduced consequences for ID theft have failed to produce any change, the CJC now says. The commission has rejiggered its estimates to put nearly 150 ID thieves back into its forecasts.
"We didn't take into account that, for most ID thieves, you can convict on 10 counts, 20 counts. It's not like a robbery, where there's one offense," says Craig Prins, executive director of the commission, which forecasts Oregon's prison growth twice a year.
Slackened rules for certain drug crimes aren't having much of an overall effect, either.
The findings aren't catastrophic, but the change means Oregon may save far less money in the short term than previously anticipated. And since those savings—formerly estimated at $66 million in 2015-2017—are supposed to be reinvested back into Oregon's 36 counties, ambitious efforts in Portland and elsewhere may have to temper their expectations.
The development has officials in some of Oregon's most populous counties making an interesting request of Governor John Kitzhaber. In a letter sent on Friday, October 3, officials from Multnomah, Lane, Marion, and Clackamas counties asked Kitzhaber to go ahead and budget that $66 million anyway—regardless of the new projections.
"Without communities receiving new funding to incentivize local efforts, the full impact of HB 3194 will not be realized," the letter warns, referencing House Bill 3194, the prison reform legislation. "We urge you to dedicate all the savings from implementing HB 3194, projected to be $66 million..."
The request is one in an unending stream the governor will receive as he prepares to release a budget in December, but some advocates say it might determine the long-term success of one of Kitzhaber's pet issues.
"Whatever you can give back to local communities, we need that," says Abbey Stamp, executive director of Multnomah County's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, a group of high-ranking justice officials that has led efforts to cut the county's prison use. "We need as much funding as possible."
Oregon's prison-shrinking efforts took shape two years ago, when Kitzhaber began warning that corrections spending was on an untenable path. Lawmakers ultimately passed HB 3194, which contained lighter penalties for some drug crimes, low-level robberies, driving with a suspended license, and identity theft, and let well-behaved prisoners out months earlier than was typical. The idea was that money saved on prison beds could be doled out to counties in the form of grants, and used to cut the crime rate.
Counties got their first taste of that money—around $15 million in total—last year, and immediately set about making plans. In Multnomah County, officials used much of a $3.1 million disbursement to better assess prisoners, giving judges a more detailed notion of an offender's risk. That effort began only in July, though, and officials say it has the potential to create more savings than the new forecasts reflect.
Lane County, reeling from years of budget cuts, put its almost $1.4 million into existing programs. So did Marion County.
All along, there was a massive carrot hanging in front of officials' noses: Put in the effort to meaningfully steer your justice system away from prison use, and there could be as much as $70 million in savings to play with next time around.
"It feels like we've Band-Aided this together every year," says Marion County Commissioner Janet Carlson, who signed the October 3 letter. "What the state money allows us to do is to start a sustainable program where we're not going to have to wonder year to year."
But the allure of new cash hasn't brought results everywhere. Multnomah County has reduced its prison usage by 14 percent—151 prisoners—in the last year, but 17 counties have actually seen an uptick in their prison use. Clackamas and Lane Counties have sent dozens more people to the Oregon Department of Corrections.
Kitzhaber's only one part of the budget process, obviously, and even if the governor's budget includes the full amount asked for, it could well be chipped away—obliterated, even—in the legislative scrum early next year.
What Carlson, Stamp, and the letter's other signers are urging, they say, is that the governor give his own reforms a fighting chance.
"Counties are trying to reduce the people they're sending to prison," says Suzanne Hayden, executive director of the Citizens' Crime Commission and a primary author of the missive. "Who'd have thought we'd see that?
"I'm urging the governor to take the long view."