Ore. House passes bill aimed to curb prison population growth

Ore. House passes bill aimed to curb prison population growth
FILE - This Nov. 18, 2011, file photo shows the Oregon State Penitentiary, in Salem, Ore. (AP Photo/Statesman-Journal, Danielle Peterson, File)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon House approved a scaled-back plan aimed at curbing the state's growing prison population Thursday.

"Today marks a victory in the ongoing effort to craft public safety policy based on the evidence about what works best to keep communities safe," said Rep. Andy Olson, an Albany Republican and former Oregon State Police lieutenant.

The bill, which passed 40-18, would loosen certain criminal sentencing laws in an effort to hold Oregon's inmate population at 14,600 over the next five years. Oregon is currently housing 14,500 offenders in its state prisons.

Among other changes, the measure would reduce sentences established in 2008 for certain drug and property crimes. It would lower penalties for some driving with a suspended license and marijuana-related charges. These policy changes would expire after 10 years.

Other provisions would allow probation officer to modify the conditions of probation, and would allow a reduction in length of supervision if the offender complies with the terms of probation. The bill would also establish a fund for counties that participate in programs aimed at driving down recidivism and keeping people out of prison.

The bill makes modest reforms to criminal sentencing laws compared with an initial proposal that called for repealing mandatory minimum sentences for three violent crimes. Amid strong opposition from the state's district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs, the bill was significantly pared down.

The latest version of the bill succeeded in bringing key law enforcement groups on board.

"This is obviously somewhat of a compromise, but it's something that we can live with," said Timothy Colahan, president of the Oregon District Attorneys Association.

On the House floor, Reps. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, and Greg Matthews, D-Gresham, said they were disappointed the bill didn't go further to overhaul criminal sentencing for juveniles. Both voted for the bill.No lawmakers spoke against the bill. It was a politically tough vote for some who fear being perceived as soft on crime.

The bill builds on a 2012 report by the governor's Commission on Public Safety that found the state's growing prison population unsustainable in the long term.

Without legislative intervention, the report found, Oregon would need to build about 2,000 additional prison beds over the next decade. This would require building a new prison.

Gov. John Kitzhaber turned to the Legislature to come up with a plan to cap the inmate population at 14,600, and avoid having to build a new prison.

In a statement, Kitzhaber said he supports the lawmakers' efforts and looks forward to signing the bill.

"The bill is consistent with the goals I set for the Commission on Public Safety and will help the state hold prison beds flat for at least the next five years," he said.

The savings from the policy changes proposed in the bill are expected to be $17 million in the next two years. And over a 10-year period, the package is projected to save the state $326 million in corrections, nearly half of what the original proposal would have done.

It now heads to the Senate floor.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.