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Ore. Lawmakers' Choice: New Women's Prison or Prison Alternatives?

Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that could keep the state from having to build a second women's prison. (Ztranger/iStockphoto)
Oregon lawmakers are considering a bill that could keep the state from having to build a second women's prison. (Ztranger/iStockphoto)
April 12, 2017

SALEM, Ore. - As the population at Oregon's sole women's prison swells, lawmakers are left with a choice: Should the state build a new women's prison or consider alternatives to lower the prison population?

House Bill 3078, known as the "Safety and Savings Act," which is to get a hearing in the Oregon House Judiciary Committee today, would divert women convicted of drug and property crimes to intensive supervision programs as well as addiction and mental-health treatment instead of prison.

Shannon Wight, deputy director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice, said these alternatives could make the state safer. As she put it, "Addiction doesn't respond to being thrown in a cell.

"Even police officers are seeing they're arresting the same person, day after day after day," she said. "You know, they might arrest the same person 20, 30 times, and it's not changing their addiction. So actually, the more effective way to create safety is to both hold folks accountable but also get them the treatment services they need."

From 2007 to 2015, the women's incarceration rate in Oregon increased by 22 percent, and 70 percent of women's convictions in 2015 were for drug and property crimes. In December, the Oregon Legislature's Emergency Board rejected a Department of Corrections request to open a former prison in Salem to house more women.

The Safety and Savings Act would help maintain justice-reinvestment programs, the county-level diversion programs that are alternatives to prison. It also would amend the Family Sentencing Alternative to include pregnant women in a program that keeps mothers with custody of their children out of prison and under intensive supervision. Wight said she thinks investing in a new women's prison is the wrong way to spend state money, particularly given the population that would be affected.

"Women, most of whom are mothers, most of whom have been victims of assault or sexual assault themselves," she said. "Spending nearly $20 million a biennium when we could put those resources into things that actually would make our community safer would be a really bad use of our state resources."

Wight pointed to the state's $1.8 billion deficit as another reason to avoid building a new prison.

The hearing on HB 3078 is to begin at 1 p.m. today at the State Capitol. The bill is online at olis.leg.state.or.us.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - OR