Myths and Facts
Myth: Measure 11 is responsible for the drop in crime Oregon experienced in the 1990s and the following decade.
Fact: Measure 11 is a set of mandatory minimum sentences for a range of person-to-person crimes passed via ballot measure in 1994. Oregon’s tough-on-crime advocates suggest Measure 11 is responsible for the drop in Oregon’s crime rate experienced in the 1990s and beyond. Upon closer examination, it is easy to disprove their claims.
First, crime rates across the country began trending downward in the mid-1990s. When comparing incarceration rates and crime rates from a number of states like Oregon, California, Washington, and New York between 1995 and 2002, all four states experienced similar reductions in crime while Oregon more than tripled the incarceration rate of the other three states. So other states were seeing declines in crime during that same period without the dramatic increase in incarceration caused by Measure 11.
Measure 11 advocates argue that Measure 11 is effective because it keeps “serious offenders” off the streets and prevents them from committing more crime. This incapacitation argument just doesn’t add up. “People convicted of the types of crime affected by Measure 11 were already subject to substantial prison terms under the old sentencing guidelines. An incapacitation effect, if any, wouldn’t kick in until after the point when these prisoners would have been released if they had been sentenced under the old system. But Oregon’s rate of violent crime began to decline immediately following the onset of Measure 11, too soon to have been triggered by the harsher sentencing requirements,” says Judy Greene from Justice Strategies.
To better understand the limited impact of Measure 11 on crime reduction read “Crime Trends and Incarceration Rates in Oregon,” a report by Justice Strategies.
Myth: Increasing incarceration rates is the most effective way to reduce crime.
Fact: Crime is a complicated social dynamic that increases and decreases based on a variety of factors. Research shows that increasing incarceration rates has only a limited impact on reducing crime. Also, the usefulness of incarceration has a point of diminishing returns. In other words, states can over-incarcerate to the point where the cost of incarceration outweighs the return in crime reduction.
Studies of the national drop in crime rates over the past fifteen years have pointed to a variety of factors - from the growth of the economy in the 1990s, to changes in drug markets and trends in drug use, to shifts in policing strategies.
Further complicating things, a study of incarceration rates and crime in the U.S. from 1991 to 1998 showed that states with lower than average incarceration rates experienced a larger reduction in crime than states with higher than average incarceration rates.
More information on this topic can be found by reading “Incarceration and Crime: A Complex Relationship” by the Sentencing Project.
Myth: Crime seems to be getting worse and more pervasive.
Fact: It seems like every time you turn on the local nightly news on television the “news stories” focus on crime and more crime. Mainstream news media provides an unrealistic view of actual crime trends. The adage “if it bleeds, it leads” refers to an common editorial framework that suggests crime is something people want to hear about. So local press coverage places a heavy emphasis on reporting crime, while focusing on individual stories and spending almost no attention to discussing crime trends in a social or historical context. The result of such problematic coverage is deep misunderstanding among the public of the realities of crime.
In 2009, Oregon is experiencing nearly 30 year lows in our overall crime rate which is a similar trend around the country.
For more information visit the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission’s website or the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Myth: Building prisons is a useful rural economic development strategy.
Fact: Oregon Business Magazine’s April 2008 cover story, "PRISONTOWN MYTH: The promise of prosperity hasn’t come true for Oregon's rural communities" exposes the truth about the economic impact that the 1990s prison expansion has had on Oregon’s rural communities.
Despite promises that Oregon’s Department of Corrections (DOC) made to Oregon’s rural counties about the economic benefits that locating a prison in their community would have, “Employment and income numbers indicate that Oregon’s massive investment in prison expansion has brought local gains that are modest at best. The rural counties that gambled biggest on large prisons after the passage of Measure 11, Malheur and Umatilla, have continued to struggle.”
In a significant reversal for DOC, Max Williams, director of the Oregon Department of Corrections who was appointed by Gov. Ted Kulongoski in January 2004, says it is a misnomer to think of prisons as an engine of economic development.
“We are not a profit center,” says Williams. “We are a cost center. We’re taking tax dollars that could be spent on a whole variety of things, and we’re spending them on prisons.”
The Oregon-based research that shows prison construction as a failed economic development strategy mirrors research from around the country.
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