Since July 2014, Multnomah County has sent more than 600 offenders, who in the past would have likely gone to prison, into an intensive probation program within the community instead.
The program is part of a statewide effort to cut down on incarceration rates of people convicted of nonviolent drug and property crimes, while at the same time maintaining public safety.
The county recently ran the numbers on the first year of the program, and the results are in: It’s working.
“We are reducing the number of people sent to prison and not compromising public safety,” said Abbey Stamp, director of Local Public Safety Coordinating Council and a member of a workgroup that helped put together the report.
Unfortunately, a proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act and Oregon’s budgetary shortfalls in the upcoming biennium threaten the future of this program and could reverse the trend toward incarcerating fewer nonviolent offenders.
To avoid opening another prison, the Oregon Legislature passed House Bill 3194 in 2013, creating a grant program to fund programs in counties across Oregon aimed at lowering recidivism rates and prison usage.
With those funds, Multnomah County created its Justice Reinvestment Program. Now, eligible offenders facing likely prison sentences are evaluated to determine whether a probation program could be used in the place of incarceration.
Each participant, who agrees to join the program voluntarily, is sent through an in-depth pre-sentencing assessment process to determine risk factors such as criminality, community support, addiction issues and mental health.
Once he or she is assessed, the judge, prosecutor, defense team, and probation and parole staff hold a conference with the defendant where the group makes an informed decision on sentencing that often includes probation paired with a program plan tailored to fit the individual’s needs. That plan can include drug and alcohol treatment, mental health services, housing and job placement, as well as other wraparound services.
Of the 2,375 offenders who have gone through the evaluation process to date, 22 percent were still initially sentenced to prison. But the vast majority were sentenced to regular or intensive probation instead, with the condition that if they failed to comply with the requirements, they could be revoked to prison for the remainder of their sentence.
To determine whether the program was working, the report’s authors compared offenders who were sent through this new process to a control group of similar offenders who went through the county justice system before the program was implemented.
It found that 42 percent of offenders who would have gone to prison under the old system were put on probation instead. But the real win was the discovery that they were no more likely to be re-arrested within the first year after sentencing than offenders the county was already putting on probation before the program started.
According to the county’s report, 32 percent of participants in the first year of the program were re-arrested and incarcerated, either for new crimes or serious probation violations.
Lane Borg, director of Metropolitan Public Defenders, said he was “ecstatic” the recidivism rate “didn’t blow up.”
“We took a much riskier group of people,” he said, “and the recidivism rate was about the same as we saw with the control group that, in theory, had selected out these more risky people and sent them off to prison.”
But he cautions against drawing too many conclusions from this report.
He said it’s unlikely any future year will mirror the program’s first, as everyone at the table – prosecutors, defense attorneys and the county’s Department of Community Justice – are getting better at matching offenders with the right programs and identifying deficiencies.
One problem the county identified early on was there aren’t enough providers of some services needed by program participants, such as in-patient drug and alcohol treatment and cognitive therapy for criminal thinking.
And, he warned, “that is only going to get more challenging with the results of the national election.”
He said if the Affordable Care Act is repealed, “that’s going to jeopardize the program.”
The Affordable Care Act funds drug and alcohol treatment for individuals on parole and probation, which freed up money for the county to spend on other crucial services, such as housing, he said.
If wraparound services provided to people on intensive probation go away, they will be more likely to fail the program.
Street Roots first spoke with Michael Miyamura in March 2015 when he was just 60 days into his sentence with the county’s Justice Reinvestment Program. He was at a ceremony for the initial group of offenders to complete the first 120 days of intensive probation. At that time he told us that if they could do it, so could he.
Now, he said, the program saved his life.
“I’m still clean two years later,” he said. “I’m working, I got my driver’s license – I’m doing pretty good.”
He was homeless and addicted to meth when he was arrested for stealing cars. If not for the program, he said, he was looking at a 15-year prison sentence.
“The program is as hard as the individual wants to make it,” he said. “If I can stay clean, I can be an example for others to be what they want to be someday.”
His only complaint was that when he reached that 120-day mark, he was no longer provided with housing.
Luckily, he had friends he could stay with until he got on his feet. Today he has his own apartment and is self-employed in carpentry, a trade he learned long before drugs took over his life. Part of his sentence included a two-hour tour of Oregon State Penitentiary, which he said had a big impact.
“It gave me a look of where I would be going,” he said, “and where I didn’t want to go. It helped me a lot.”
Now, he said, “he’s on a track of no return.” He’s even become a mentor to a foster child who was adopted by one of his friends.
“You can’t be a mentor if you’re a criminal,” he said.
We also checked back in with Carole Hinojosa, who was featured in our initial coverage of the Justice Reinvestment Program.
She grew up in a drug house in deep Southeast Portland in the 1970s, where, she said, she began her long affair with alcohol and methamphetamine when she was just 8 years old. She had done time in prison when she was 28, and when she entered the program she was looking at a 46- to 50-month prison sentence for assaulting someone when she was drunk and high on meth.
She excitedly told us she’s still “doing really great.” This month she finished her first term at Portland Community College with a 3.7 GPA, she said.
She’s studying to be an alcohol and drug counselor.
“Not a lot of counselors that have a background like mine,” she said. “People with a lot of childhood trauma need someone who relates to childhood trauma.”
After her first 120 days of intensive probation, she moved into recovery housing, and later this month, she’ll be moving out on her own.
“I went from living under a bridge for 10 years to having my own apartment,” she said. “They gave me the opportunity to change my life.”
Each of Oregon’s 36 counties receives justice reinvestment grant money, doled out by the state’s Criminal Justice Commission based on a formula that takes the county’s size and population into account. In the last biennium, Multnomah County received the largest chunk, with a grant of $8.1 million.
Multnomah County leads the state in cumulative reduction of prison sentences, but a handful of counties have actually increased the number of people they send to prison for drug and property crimes, despite receiving money to do the opposite.
With budget cuts to the program looming, those counties could potentially lose their justice reinvestment funding, said Mike Schmidt, director of the Criminal Justice Commission.
Leading up to the current biennium, proponents of the Justice Reinvestment Program argued it needed an investment of $58 million.
The Legislature gave it much less, with a budget of $38 million.
That investment helped the state avoid roughly $52 million to $56 million in corrections costs, on top of what it would have cost to open a new prison, Schmidt said.
But that “avoided cost” is not the same thing as “cost savings,” he said, as corrections costs go up each year.
“To actually achieve savings,” he said, “we would need to close a prison.”
With Oregon facing significant budgetary shortfalls in the upcoming budget cycle, Gov. Kate Brown is proposing an allocation to the program of just $32 million for the next two years.
Schmidt said the fact that she didn’t cut the program completely, given the circumstances, shows her support. But, with less money to go around, he said, “we’re taking a hard look at counties that have not decreased usage of prisons for property and drug crimes.”
Those counties include Washington, Clatsop, Linn, Jackson and Josephine. And in Josephine County, the likely closure of its jail in 2017 due to dire financial straits could mean further increases in its contribution of inmates to state prisons.
Schmidt said that without a jail to house people awaiting sentencing, they could rack up more crimes that would lead to stiffer and lengthier prison sentences.
Additionally, probation programs offered in the community lack the teeth they need for compliance when there is no jail to send people to for probation violation sanctions.
The governor’s proposed closure of the psychiatric hospital in Junction City could also mean an uptick in incarceration.
“Anytime you lose mental health capacity,” Schmidt said, “it affects the Department of Corrections.”
Scott Taylor is the director of Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, which oversees the justice reinvestment process locally. He said the program simply “can’t take a hit” financially.
“We’ll be talking to our legislators over the next six months,” he said.
Conversations will be about convincing legislators that it doesn’t make sense to make cuts to a program that manages a prison-destined population for one-third of the cost to the state, he said.
While the county’s initial report on the program found that it is keeping people out of prison without increasing recidivism within the community, there were some negative outcomes as well.
In January, a damning report by the MacArthur Foundation revealed widespread disparity at every level of the Multnomah County justice system.
The period studied for the county’s report on its Justice Reinvestment Program ended about six months earlier, unsurprisingly exhibiting the same disparities.
While fewer participants in the Justice Reinvestment Program were sent to prison across all racial and ethnic groups, white and Asian offenders were less likely than black and Hispanic offenders to receive a prison sentence after the assessment phase.
Whites and Asians were also more likely to opt in to the program, although after the program became established, the number of people opting out dropped dramatically.
Schmidt said he doesn’t know how this compares to other Oregon counties because detailed data on racial and ethnic disparities haven’t been analyzed at this level elsewhere in the state.
“At least they had the guts to look in the mirror,” he said. “You have to give them credit for asking tough questions.”
The report’s authors indicated “more evidence is needed to determine what is driving the disparity in prison sentences.”
Borg said he believes the disparity is driven by implicit bias.
“The MacArthur report came out in January – no one knew how bad it was,” he said.
Another outcome of the program was the increased use of Multnomah County jails. With difficulties in coordinating multiple schedules for risk assessments and sentencing conferences, inmates were held in jail longer leading up to sentencing.
Additionally, some participants who received sentences served time in jail rather than prison because the duration had been shortened to less than a year.
When the program began, the Legislature granted county jails an extra $5 million to cover this uptick in jail use, but there was no money set aside for that cost in the second biennium, said Caroline Wong, a deputy district attorney who oversees the Justice Reinvestment program for the Multnomah County District Attorney’s Office.
“We know that this is an issue, but we don’t know how much,” she said.
Prison usage and program funding
See each Oregon county's prison usage and how it spends its justice reinvestment dollars on the Criminal Justice Commission's Interactive Data dashboard.
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