'Low-risk' designation sits uneasy with victims' groups, DAs

'Low-risk' designation sits uneasy with victims' groups, DAs »Play Video
Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber warns members of the Commission on Public Safety on Monday that he won't support reform that shortens sentences or releases violent offenders from prison early.

SALEM, Ore. – A debate is raging at the Capitol as the state tries to save money, and the outcome could determine who stays in prison and who should be freed.

The state Commission on Public Safety says prison populations will grow by 2,000 inmates in the next decade. Housing and caring for those inmates costs taxpayers about $650 million a year.

The commission released a report stating there was a growing number of "low risk offenders" in the prisons. Those "low risk offenders," though, include 57 murderers, two kidnappers and 78 felony assault convicts.

District attorneys and victims’ rights groups fear this "low risk" designation and inflated prison population forecasts are being used to justify the releases of more violent criminals.

"We've got a prison that's sitting over by Madras – Deer Ridge – that for the most part is empty about a third of it is being used," said Steve Doell with Crime Victims United. "There're 1800 beds over there, and I think about 5 or 6-hundred are being used right now."

Among those on the low-risk list is Bruce Turnidge who bombed a Woodburn bank two years ago, killing two police officers.

Doell said there is a major problem of bias with the study showing Oregon had a large population of low risk inmates. He said it was done by the Pew Foundation, which is an organization that widely opposes imprisonment over rehabilitation.

"It gives people a false impression of who we are putting in prison. That somehow these people don't need to be locked up," Doell said.

He said if Gov. John Kitzhaber and the Commission on Public Safety are truly trying to find savings in the corrections budget, they can begin by filling the beds they have rather than build new prisons or release violent offenders early.

The commission will bring plans to Kitzhaber about how the prisons should be funded and how they should be managed to save money.

Kitzhaber appointed the Commission on Public Safety to hammer out plans for the future of Oregon's prison system and on Monday he gave members a stern warning.

"I want to make it very clear that I am not interested in, nor will I support, any reform of the public safety system that shorten sentences or provides for the early release of violent offenders. Period. End of story," he said.

The governor's statement comes from reports provided by the commission that Oregon is housing a growing number of "low risk offenders" in its prisons at the cost of hundreds of millions of dollars yearly to taxpayers.

Another study used by the Public Safety Commission stated the prison population will grow by 2,000 in the next decade. But district attorneys across Oregon say the numbers have been inflated every year.

Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, as well as other district attorneys, dispute that the prison population will grow by 2,000 in the next year.

"All I'm saying is, let's go on the track record, and the track record says we are not going to need 2,000 beds. That's what the track record shows," Foote said.

Many district attorneys point to a study showing 67.2 percent of Oregon inmates are violent criminals – the highest per-capita prisoner population of any state in the nation.

The commission is expected to bring its report to the governor and Legislature before the beginning of the 2013 Legislative session.