Women’s prison focus of state summit, legislative session

Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum prison in Salem. Increases in the female inmate population at the state's only women's prison in Wilsonville may cause legislators to spend $17.5 million to convert the facility to house women.

SALEM – The women’s prison population has tripled in the past two decades because of sentencing reforms and a criminal justice system that is biased against women, according to a criminal justice reform researcher.

The increase is “not the result of women becoming more violent or becoming more problematic, but the fact that our sentencing laws have changed and our policies around the war on drugs has also been a war on women, particularly on women of color,” said Emily Salisbury, a criminal justice associate professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Salisbury’s provocative statement during a keynote address at Oregon’s third-annual Justice Reinvestment Summit Thursday is salient to crucial decisions lawmakers will make this legislative session.

Lawmakers will have to decide whether to spend $17.5 million into opening a second women’s prison at the old Oregon State Penitentiary Minimum Security facility in Salem.

The state’s only existing women’s prison, Coffee Creek Correctional Institution in Wilsonville, has been chronically over capacity for more than a year. The population on Thursday stood at 1,290, about 10 over the limit, according to DOC.

Meanwhile, the state faces a nearly $1.8 billion revenue shortfall, and the state’s justice reinvestment funding is at risk of reduction or elimination this budget cycle, said state budget writer Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin.

Yet lawmakers from both parties are rallying behind efforts to avoid opening another prison and to maintain funding for the criminal justice reform initiative, known as “justice reinvestment.”

“I am very excited about the fact that both Democrats and Republicans, men and women, are saying to me: Let’s figure out how we can avoid opening a second women’s prison, and I am like, hallelujah,” said Gov. Kate Brown in a phone interview with the Pamplin Media Group/EO Media Group Capital Bureau.

“I would just say the opening of that facility is at a time when the state resources are already limited and is contrary to Oregon’s approach of justice reinvestment and focus on reducing recidivism and supporting self-sufficiency.”

After seeing the turnout of 1,000 registrants at Thursday’s summit, Brown said she is “confident the Legislature will continue to fund Justice Reinvestment.”

The governor’s proposed budget includes about $32 million for justice reinvestment grants for counties in the next two years. Brown said that if the state can avoid opening the second women’s prison, she would propose adding the savings from that to the $32 million.

The justice reinvestment initiative came out of a 2013 law that expanded early release programs, lowered penalties for certain property and drug possession crimes and authorized about $55 million in grants since 2013 to pay for counties to set up and enhance support services for offenders on probation and parole.

So far, the program has saved the state an estimated $52.7 million from reducing the male and female prison population, said Rep. Duane Stark, R-Grants Pass, co-chairman of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Public Safety.

“It’s a proven investment that is reducing public safety costs and improving communities,” said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland. “It’d be pennywise and pound foolish to cut funding for the program.”

Salisbury, a former faculty member of Portland State University, has trained employees at the Oregon Department of Corrections in “gender-responsive strategies.” Similar strategies are becoming international policy in the treatment and supervision of female offenders, Salisbury said.

“Women are far less likely to engage in violence, less likely to use a gun, or a weapon in commission of an offense, far less likely to be the kingpin or ringmaster in criminal enterprises,” Salisbury said. “This, of course, doesn’t mean that women shouldn’t be punished or held accountable. … But it should be recognized that they are far less dangerous, pose less of a risk to public safety and that the social and fiscal costs of their incarceration have wider implications and effects on families and their children.”

The summit at the Salem Convention Center was scheduled to continue through Friday.

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