Oregon’s Self-Delusion of Progressiveness on Criminal Justice

I believe that one of the reasons that Oregon is so sleepy on race and criminal justice reform is that we have a false belief that we’re one of the “good states” and therefore don’t need to worry about it.

I created this graphic to show where we actually stand compared to the rest of the US on race, policing, and prison. It pulls from two sources, this tool to show rates of police killings of black people and this pdf on black imprisonment.

Oregon's Delusion of Progressiveness on Criminal Justice
Click to see full-size.

Admitting the problem is the first step in solving it.

Washington State Considers Reinstating Parole

ln Washington state, a fledgling movement is looking at bringing back parole to reduce the number of people behind bars… The state Sentencing Guidelines Commission is to hear two proposals at its Nov. 20 meeting.

Read the article in the Seattle Times

Washington and Oregon both have severely restricted parole–in Oregon, all Measure 11 convictions are denied parole or any other form of early release, including “good time” (earned time for good behavior). Washington eliminated all parole for anyone convicted after 1984.

Like Oregon, Washington is facing the decision to build a new prison or reduce incarceration. And like Oregon, much of Washington sees itself as a “good” state, with progressive policies, and is unaware of the reality of their criminal justice system. Could our sleepy Northwestern states finally be waking up to the national conversation about criminal justice and mass incarceration?


Is Oregon on the cusp of building a new prison?

The 2013 Justice Reinvestment Act was aimed to flatline prison growth in Oregon.

However, in order for it to pass, all changes to Measure 11 and Measure 57’s mandatory minimums were removed. The result is that our prison population isn’t actually declining, and we may have to build a new prison after all.

To invest in community programs without reducing our draconian sentencing scheme is like trying to run a race on one leg. It won’t get us there. You cannot fix mass incarceration without decarceration.

Will Kate Brown support real prison reform?

Read the story and sign the petition.

Let’s talk about decarceration.

When you talk about letting people out of prison early, people freak out.

But let’s face it, sticking to the the arbitrary date on which people are “supposed” to be released doesn’t actually make you any safer. Being in prison for 10 years doesn’t magically make someone a better person than being in prison for 9 years. If someone is due to be released on April 20th, they aren’t a “dangerous criminal” on April 19th and then magically a “safe citizen” on April 21st. These dates are meaningless when it comes to public safety.

There is some strange comfort people feel in enforcing numbers that have been previously decided on, but the reality is that safety doesn’t come from prison terms. So where does it come from? How could we reduce our reliance on prison for a (false) sense of safety, and create real safety instead?

Here is an excerpt from a paper on “Smart Decarceration” by the Center for Social Development.

What Steps Are Needed to Move from Mass Incarceration to Smart Decarceration?

Smart decarceration requires recognizing that altering the overreliance on incarceration is a multifaceted endeavor. Smart decarceration will be a comprehensive approach that requires a combination of the following steps:

(1) Reconsidering the utility and function of incarceration. In the United States’ current system, incarceration is typically the default response to crime. What would the use of incarceration look like if it were used to incapacitate only the most dangerous? What if incarceration were not an option for certain types of offenses?

(2) Supporting innovations across all sectors of the criminal justice system. Each sector of the criminal justice system (e.g., law enforcement, courts, jails, prisons, community supervision) has contributed to the phenomenon of mass incarceration and must be engaged to achieve smart decarceration. A critical first step will be to determine the parts of the criminal justice system that could benefit from less baton passing and more integration.

(3) Multidisciplinary approaches to policy and practice interventions. During the era of mass incarceration, few coherent and effective policy or practice interventions have been developed to address the needs of the expanding incarcerated population or to prevent incarceration. Because smart decarceration involves more than simply reducing the prison population, a multidisciplinary person-in-environment perspective is necessary.

(4) Rigorously evaluating and applying emerging evidence. Significant work is needed to uncover key mechanisms of change in behavioral intervention approaches. Modern intervention approaches often have small effect sizes because of current gaps in knowledge about key mechanisms. Moreover, empirically supported behavioral interventions to reduce recidivism have not been widely disseminated and adopted, which is a typical research-to-practice translational problem seen in many other contexts. Thus, application of new knowledge will have to be purposefully addressed.

So basically, we need to:

  1. Figure out what works in behavioral intervention.
  2. Share that knowledge across the board, so we can do things that work instead of relying on things that don’t.

It sounds pretty straightforward. You’d kind of wonder why we aren’t already doing that. Using prison for behavioral intervention is like trying to teach a dog not to run into the street by crushing its legs. Sure, it can’t run as long as its legs are broken. But it hasn’t learned anything besides life is cruel, and it may never be the same again.

Practical first steps for Oregon.

Here are my suggestions.

  1. Reinstate parole. The easiest way to reduce the prison population safely would be to figure out who in prison doesn’t need to be there anymore, and let them go. One of the worst parts of Measure 11 is that it eliminated parole. This means there is no way to demonstrate that you have changed, reformed, or simply grown up (many people “age out of crime”). It made prison categorically punitive. There are many people serving long sentences who are no longer a danger to anyone, and we need to review and release people who have demonstrated rehabilitation.
  2. Reinvest the money saved into intensive therapeutic and work training programs that carry through to when people are released. Helping people with problems is not rocket science. It does take time, resources, and committed people, and as noted above, doing what works.

Politics needs to support social change.

The only way these things will happen is if we begin to look at crime differently. We need to stop seeing people who commit crimes as throwaways, and see them as members of the community. We can’t continue to push people out of sight and out of mind and expect this to get better. We need to face the problems, commit to the solutions, and be willing to expend the effort it will take to get there.

In our country, justice policy is driven by politics, so politicians have to have the courage to take a stand on these issues. It’s not enough to be against prisons. You have to also be for the people in them.

PTSD and Suicide Amongst Prison Guards at Oregon State Penitentiary

New article from The Guardian highlights several officers at OSP – ‘Prison guards can never be weak’: the hidden PTSD crisis in America’s jails.

“…34% of corrections officers suffer from PTSD. This compares to 14% of military veterans. The suicide rate among corrections officers is twice as high as that of both police officers and the general public, according to a New Jersey police taskforce. An earlier national study found that corrections officers’ suicide risk was 39% higher than all other professions combined.”

The article interviews several correctional officers about PTSD, suicide rates, the culture of prison guards, and how DOC is (and isn’t) responding to this widespread problem.

It doesn’t discuss how guards’ PTSD affects how they treat inmates, the rates of PTSD and suicide amongst inmates (which are also very high), or whether prison as it is currently conceived is fundamentally capable of producing healthy outcomes for anyone involved.

For an examination of how prison affects the long-term mental health of inmates, read about Post Incarceration Syndrome and Relapse.

For a deeper look into the relationship between mental health and prison and why so many guards are dealing with inmate behaviors that are violent and traumatizing, read this article about how Obamacare could help by treating mental illness before people end up in prison. Here is an excerpt:

The “epidemic of incarceration over the last four decades,” as Josiah Rich, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at Brown University, and co-founder of The Center for Prisoner Health and Human Rights at The Miriam Hospital, puts it, can be mostly attributed to two diseases: addiction and mental illness. “The natural history of these diseases, when not treated, leads to behaviors that, in our society, result in incarceration,”…

…The last major study on mental health in prisons, conducted by the Bureau of Justice Statistics, found that 64 percent of inmates in state and federal prisons met the criteria for mental illness at the time of their booking or during the twelve months leading up to their arrest. For comparison, the rate of mental disorders among U.S. citizens stands at around 25 percent, according to the NIH. Sixty-nine percent of the country’s prison population was addicted to drugs or alcohol prior to incarceration.

The violence that is giving these guards PTSD is something that could be prevented by treating mental health issues before they escalate to criminal behavior in the first place–and by treating violence in general as a symptom of untreated trauma rather than as a moral failing. Trauma can be healed, but trying to “punish away the symptoms” just doesn’t work.