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Mixed review for public safety changes

Gov. John Kitzhaber has promised to sign House Bill 3194, which cleared its final legislative hurdle this week when it passed the Senate 19-11; local reactions on the bill, which is designed to put the brakes on costs in the state public safety budget, were mixed.

“The governor, two years ago, convened a committee on public safety and they made a number of sweeping, dramatic recommendations,” said Wasco County District Attorney Eric Nisley. “We were very opposed to that. But through negotiations with the legislature and the governor over several months, we came up with these compromises. We feel these address the budgetary constraints, but still protect citizens from the most violent people.”

An initial draft of the bill would have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for offenders who commit three violent crimes.

The renegotiated bill has gained the support of the state associations of district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs. While The Dalles Police Chief Jay Waterbury was supportive of the compromise bill, Wasco County Sheriff Rick Eiesland was on the committee that helped negotiate the changes and was less positive about the outcome.

“We would have been better off if they wouldn’t have brought the whole thing up and went forward with it,” Eiesland said.

On the positive side, Eiesland noted that any savings as a result of the bill are supposed to be invested in community corrections and programs designed to reduce repeat offense and keep people out of prison.

Some of the changes the public safety associations negotiated included removing a provision that would have increased the length of sentence that could be spent in county jails, shifting the financial burden for those prisoners to the counties.

“Right now, if you have a year or less, you can spend it in county jail,” Eiesland said. “They wanted to up that to 24 months when it first started, then 18 months.”

Now the negotiated bill provides only that certain sentences up to 15 months may be served in county jails. “But there are very, very few of those,” Eiesland noted.

Another provision removed from the bill was a trigger mechanism that would have allowed the governor to send some prisoners back to counties within the next six years if prisoner numbers reached a certain level.

Supporting the package was a politically difficult vote for some legislators as well who feared being perceived as soft on crime.

Opponents said they disliked the package because it made some changes to a voter-approved sentencing law.

“Going backward wasn’t the right thing to do,” said Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican.

The policy changes are expected to hold the state’s prison population at 14,600 over the next five years, and save the state $326 million in corrections costs over the next decade.

Some of the additional changes in the public safety package were sentence reductions for certain drug and property crimes. The bill would also lower penalties for some driving with a suspended license and marijuana-related charges. The policy changes would expire after 10 years.

“We came out with what we felt was going to be less intrusive to sheriffs and to public safety,” Eiesland said. “We are not totally satisfied with the bill, but it’s something we can live with.”

Editor’s note: Associated Press reporter Lauren Gambino also contributed to this report.

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