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Extra Earned Time Sentence Reductions Save Oregon $25 Million

Early prison releases saved Oregon at least $25 million in 2009, according to an audit report by the Secretary of State’s office released in December 2010.

On November 1, 1989, Oregon replaced its indeterminate parole matrix sentencing system with a determinate sentencing guideline system. Like similar shifts across the U.S., this was part of a “tough-on-crime” and “truth-in-sentencing” movement that required prisoners to serve at least 80% of their sentences.

Citing a 2009 report by the Pew Center on the States, the Oregon auditors noted that the national incarceration rate jumped from 207 prisoners per 100,000 residents in the 1980s to 506 per 100,000 residents in 2007. Between 1982 and 2007, prison and jail populations grew 274%, adding about 1.6 million prisoners. Likewise, state prison expenditures topped an estimated $47 billion nationwide in 2008 – a 300% increase since 1988.

Such costs are driving states to implement or increase sentence reduction programs, the auditors found. According to a 2009 National Conference of State Legislatures report, “at least 31 states had some form of earned time policy,” and “in 2009 alone, 19 pieces of legislation addressing earned time policies were enacted across 13 states, many of which expanded or increased the amount of earned time available to eligible offenders.”

Oregon was one of those states. Between 1989 and 2009, prisoners who were not sentenced under a mandatory sentencing law and who behaved while incarcerated were eligible for up to a 20% earned time sentence reduction.

In 2009, Oregon’s budget deficit compelled state lawmakers to increase the maximum earned time reduction to 30% for certain offenses committed between July 1, 2009 and July 1, 2013. The increase in earned time was retroactively applied to already-sentenced prisoners. When a prosecutor or victim objected, however, the prisoner’s extra earned time eligibility was determined in a court proceeding, and routinely denied. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.12; Aug. 2009, p.22].

As a result of these changes, in 2009 the legislature reduced the Oregon Department of Corrections’ (ODOC) budget by “$6 million due to anticipated reductions in bed need,” according to the Secretary of State audit report.

In 2010, prosecutors and crime victims’ rights groups pressured lawmakers to suspend the extra earned time reductions for crimes committed between February 17, 2010 and July 1, 2011. The number of crimes ineligible for the additional earned time was increased, narrowing the pool of eligible prisoners once the suspension expired and 30% earned time was again made available for crimes committed between July 1, 2011 and July 1, 2013.

The legislature also “directed the Secretary of State to conduct an audit of earned time to evaluate the actual and potential impacts of the program”; to assess ODOC’s “compliance with statutes and its rules, policies and procedures”; and to “analyze best practices among similar programs in other jurisdictions.”

“Using the [ODOC’s] average daily cost per inmate for the 2007 to 2009 biennium of $77.78,” the audit report estimated that “Oregon saved at least $25 million with the earned time program for 2009.” However, that estimate “does not include any social, victim, or law enforcement costs associated with any new crimes committed by inmates during the time they otherwise would have been in prison had they not been awarded earned time,” the auditors noted. Yet no such crimes were cited in the report.

The $25 million in estimated savings also did not consider “deferred costs due to delays in transitional services and ... supervision had these inmates been kept in prison longer.”

Of the 3,706 offenders released in fiscal year 2009, 79% had their sentences reduced an average of 82 days. A random sampling of 70 cases found that “collectively, this group had an average incarceration reduction of 12%, with a median reduction of 17%.” Those prisoners did not serve a total of “about 7,813 days in prison due to earned time reductions,” the audit report found.

Despite observing “some areas in which practices could be improved,” including clarifying earned time rules, the auditors reported that ODOC’s “practices were generally consistent with the earned time statutes and rules.”

The audit also examined earned time and incarceration reduction programs in New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Washington and the federal Bureau of Prisons. “However, differences in sentence structure, prison populations, and definitions of recidivism” prevented the auditors “from drawing conclusions regarding best practices.”

Further, the audit “reviewed various studies to better understand the relationship between incarceration reduction and recidivism.” Such research indicated “that recidivism is no worse for inmates receiving a [sentence] reduction.” In fact, studies in Washington and New York found “lower recidivism rates for offenders released under earned time policies.” However, the audit report did not “draw conclusions about the impact of earned time on the recidivism of inmates released in Oregon.”

“Studies of the relationship between incarceration and crime rates also appears to be mixed,” the auditors noted. The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission (CJC) and Washington State Institute of Public Policy “found that a 10% increase in incarceration rates would lead to a 2.6% decrease in the overall crime rate in Oregon and a 3.3% reduction in Washington,” according to the audit. “CJC noted that this would require an additional $73 million in prison spending per biennium in Oregon.”

“Cost-benefit analyses conducted on earned time policies seem to indicate that such policies often produce more overall benefits than costs,” the auditors concluded. The “CJC found that each dollar of incarceration costs in 2005 resulted in $1.03 in benefits in Oregon, significantly down from the $3.31 in benefits for each dollar spent in 1994.”

Copies of the report are available from the Oregon Audits Division, 255 Capitol Street NE, Suite 500, Salem, OR 97310, and on PLN’s website.

Sources: “Department of Corrections: Administration of Earned Time,” Oregon Secretary of State, Audit Report No. 2010-39 (December 2010);;; Associated Press

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