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OR Public Safety Poll: A Lot Has Changed Since 1994

May 2, 2013

SALEM, Ore. - One of the big remaining tasks for Oregon lawmakers this session is deciding what to do with the recommendations from the Governor's Commission on Public Safety. A new poll offers clues about how their constituents might handle it.

Just last week, 600 Oregon voters were asked if they support or oppose specific reforms, from shortening three of the 20 mandatory minimum sentences to letting people earn time off a sentence for completing education and treatment programs. Those polled favored the changes, about two to one.

Rep. Chris Garrett (D-Dist. 38), who served on the Governor's Commission, said the poll shows a shift in thinking in recent years.

"Oregonians are very comfortable with the idea of trading a little bit of length of time in prison, if it means we can free up resources for all the other parts of the public safety system, including policing, that we are under-funding now because of the growth and the cost of prison," Garrett said.

He predicted that the biggest challenge to passing the sentencing reforms will be the two-thirds super-majority required in both House and Senate. Mandatory minimum sentences have been in place since the 1990s, and the super-majority is needed because the original law was the result of a ballot measure.

A couple of the poll questions involved how Oregon handles juvenile offenders. The committee recommended giving judges more discretion in whether to sentence a young person as an adult, and to revisit a conviction midway through the sentence. These changes received the highest amount of support in the poll, said Shannon Wight, associate director, Partnership for Safety and Justice.

"There is strong support for reforms in the way youths are automatically put into the adult criminal justice system by our mandatory minimum law," Wight said. "And Oregonians really seem to recognize that youths are capable of positive growth and that our system needs to provide an opportunity to rehabilitate and transform."

Wight's organization commissioned the poll to determine if Oregonians are willing to invest more in crime prevention instead of on prison growth and spending, she said. The people polled were fairly evenly divided between conservative, moderate and liberal when asked about their political leanings.

The poll was conducted Apr. 21-23 by Gerstein/Bocian/Agne Strategies, a polling firm based in Washington, D.C.

Chris Thomas, Public News Service - OR