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    Mercy Corps: Our Work begins at Home

    Crime Rates Fall to 30-Year Low While Correction Spending Soars

    By Jennifer Williamson

    Oregonians are safer than they have been in 30 years, according to a recent report released by the FBI, yet state spending on corrections is at an all-time high.

    Preliminary crime data for Oregon shows a dramatic decrease in 2009 crime rates. According to Craig Prins, Executive Director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, violent crime for 2009 fell in Oregon’s four largest cities. Violent crime de- creases were largest in Portland (-10%) and Gresham (-23%), while property crime declines were largest in Eugene (-12%) and Salem (-14%).

    “Crime spiked in the early- to mid-1990s, but has been going down in Oregon and across the country ever since. We haven’t seen crime levels this low in more than 30 years,” Prins told legislators at a joint hearing of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees in late May.

    Leading indicators for a reduction in crime rates, according to Prins, are the health of the economy, incarceration rates and demographics, especially the percentage of young adults in the state population. Bucking this trend, however, Oregon’s unemployment rates increased during 2002-2004 and again in 2008 and 2009, while crime rates continued to decrease.

    In 2009 we saw the largest increases in the unemployment rate since data were available in 1976. And yet, preliminary data shows that crime continued to fall. The most reliable indicator, said Prins, appears to be the number of young people ages 15-39. With fewer people that age in Oregon, the crime rate tends to de- crease. A decrease in young people in the population is projected to continue for the next 10 years.

    Correction Spending Up, Service Funding Down – And Nonprofits Fill the Gap

    Even as crime rates have dropped, spending on criminal justice budgets has skyrocketed, reducing available funding for other important public safety programs.

    According to the PEW Center on the States report “One in 100: Behind Bars in America 2008” one in 100 Americans are currently behind bars. The PEW report found that corrections spending is devastating state budgets and that Oregon spends a greater percentage of its general fund dollars on corrections than any other state in the country. This has cost billions of dollars for both the construction and operation of corrections facilities. In the 1993-1995 biennium, the Oregon Department of Corrections budget was $377 million; for 2009-2011, the Department of Corrections budget is estimated at $1.4 billion. This spending trend is expected to continue even as the state faces an estimated $577 million shortfall for the 2011-13 biennium.

    The upward trend in corrections spending is especially alarming be- cause it has been, and will continue to be, at the expense of programs proven to reduce future crime at a fraction of the cost of building more prisons. Cuts to programs for drug and alcohol treatment, prison-based education, juvenile intervention and other community-based services have actually reduced the state’s ability to maintain public safety.

    Federal, state, and local lawmakers are responding to stark budget realities by making difficult funding choices as well as distressing cuts in public safety and corrections budgets, often leaving necessary service needs unmet. Nonprofit organizations are stepping up, with the help of private funding, to ensure these important programs continue and to fill the gap in essential ser- vices in our communities.

     Prisoner Reentry Services Reduce Recidivism, Increase Safety

    One service area that will be potentially devastated by state budget cuts is programming focused on transitioning the formerly incarcerated back into society. Over 95% of all state prisoners will eventually return to the community. Advocates for transition services argue it is in everyone’s best interest to create a system that actually prepares people to succeed when they return home. Formerly incarcerated people are often stigmatized and stereotyped, and face a range of laws, policies and practices that under- mine their ability to become active and productive members of society.

    Many local organizations, including Mercy Corps Northwest, are stepping up to meet the critical need in the community for services to prisoners transitioning back into the community. In 2009, Mercy Corps Northwest along with six other lo- cal non-profit organizations, created the Reentry Transition Center (RTC) located at 1818 NE MLK Blvd., with initial funding from the United Way.

    Support for the RTC has recently been supplemented by a two-year grant from Multnomah County, using federal funds administered by the Criminal Justice Commission.

    The RTC coordinates reentry services for formerly incarcerated people leaving county, state, and federal jails and prisons. The two navigators at the center, who have successfully made the transition from prison to the community themselves, coordinate a range of essential reentry resources in one location, fostering the financial independence and well-being of a highly challenged and potentially isolated population. The coordination of services is intended to help individuals address barriers to reintegrating back into the community, which in the bigger picture, reduces recidivism and increases community safety.

    “It is in everyone’s best interest that these individual succeed in re- entering our community” said Doug Cooper, Mercy Corps Northwest assistant director and project director of the RTC. “When people succeed, they become productive, tax-paying members of the community. They support their families and strengthen the social fabric. If they don’t succeed, there are increased costs of crime, law enforcement, judicial and prison costs – not to mention the added cost in misery and suffering.”

    As government funding for these vital public safety services and programs is reduced, the work of Mercy Corps Northwest and other agencies becomes increasingly vital for the quality of life of everyone in our communities.

    Jennifer Williamson is a Portland attorney.

    Published in Oregonian Thursday, June 17, 2010

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