Part one of a two-part series
On June 29, 2012, the Governor’s most recent Public Safety Commission listened for several hours to a presentation on Oregon prison drivers prepared by PEW Center on the States. One member of the Commission described the presentation as similar to drinking from a fire hose. You can find the 55-page slide presentation at: http://www.oregon.gov/CJC/Documents/CPS_2_Pew_Presentation6292012.pdf.
THE BASIC INFORMATION
The basic information in the presentation is that Oregon’s prison population has gone from 5,841 inmates in 1990 to 14,057 inmates in 2012. The prison population has more than doubled in the last 20 years. Everyone who follows Oregon criminal justice issues knows the population in prison is up and knows the voters decided in 1994 that violent felons and serious sex offenders should go to prison. Everyone who follows Oregon criminal justice issues also knows that Oregon’s violent crime is down 51% since 1995. I could not find this important fact anywhere in the PEW slide presentation.
The presentation then breaks down the prison population by such things as race, age, person, or property crime, etc. On page 7, they have a pie chart showing person crimes at 39% and sex crimes at 27%. Why they do not consider sex crimes a person crime is a mystery to me – particularly when Oregon law defines sex crimes as person crimes. Is there some special treatment proposed for sex offenders coming in the future, or is it that Oregon has lots of sex offenders in prison so they wanted to break them out? Adding the two percentages together, we learn that Oregon’s prison system has 66% person crimes – way more than half the prison population.
COMPARING OREGON INCARCERATION TO OTHER STATES
On page 8, the title of the slide is “Oregon’s Imprisonment Rate Grew Faster in the 2000s Than the U.S. Rate.” The fair implication of this title is that Oregon is incarcerating lots of individuals. The graph actually shows that Oregon is far below the US imprisonment rate and has been this way each year since 1990 – about 22 years. According to the chart, the U.S. rate of imprisonment in 2009 was 502 inmates per 100,000 individuals, and Oregon’s rate was 373. Said another way, Oregon incarcerates about 25% fewer individuals than the U.S average.
THE APRIL 2012 PRISON POPULATION FORECAST
Representatives from PEW presented the Oregon prison population forecast, which is actually prepared twice a year by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis. They do the best they can, but remember, it is a prediction of what will happen in the future. Just like the weather forecast, sometimes it is wrong or not quite right. The actual forecast spends two-thirds of a page explaining the “Sources of Forecast Error.” The complete forecast may be found at: http://www.oea.das.state.or.us/DAS/OEA/docs/prison/DOCForecast201204.pdf. The bottom line of the current forecast is that we have 14,075 individuals in prison as of April 2012; and by the year 2023, it predicts Oregon will have 16,070 individuals in prison – if the forecast is right. Historically, the forecast has been high; so if history is any indication, this current forecast is high as well.
The members of the Commission had a discussion about the accuracy of Oregon forecasts during their last meeting. One Commissioner said the District Attorneys had studied prior forecasts against actual numbers of inmates and the forecasts were consistently high. There were comments that if crime went up in the future then the forecast might be low. Actually, whether crime is up or down is not a factor in the forecast. On page 3 of the forecast it says:
“Various other factors have been suggested and checked for possible value in predicting future prison intakes. These include trends related to crime, the economy, student assessments, and court filings. Generally speaking, aside from population cohort sizes, there are few obvious causal (or predictive) relationships to prison trends which the forecast can rely on. Therefore, the forecast for future intakes is largely based on intake trends from the recent past with adjustments for law changes and population growth.” (emphasis added)
IS THE PRISON POPULATION FORECAST IMPORTANT?
The forecast is critical because the Department of Corrections and the Criminal Justice Commission are mandated to use it for budgeting and policy development. Furthermore, I suspect the Governor’s Commission will use the forecast numbers as a basis for their recommendations. Perhaps the Governor’s Commission should spend time and effort sorting out the accuracy of the forecast because so much is riding on it. For example, if the Commission concluded that the forecast is too high or they don’t trust it, then a “forecast fix” is necessary before they make any recommendations. It seems to me, the Commission must “get to the bottom” of the accuracy of the forecast before it makes any recommendations.
The 55-page slide presentation presents what they title “Key Takeaways” on four separate slides. Next week, I’ll present some observations about the “Key Takeaways.”