True Costs of a Prison Society: A look at Measure 73

Measure 73 is going to be on the ballots that Oregonians will receive in just a few days. We believe that this is the most troubling measure that voters will confront this election cycle. It brings together two unrelated types of crimes – sexual violence, and DUIs – and hijacks an appropriate emotional response to rack up an easy win for prison expansion. And while Measure 73 would cost us Oregon more money and take control away from our judges and juries, and not make our state any safer.

In rural Oregon, especially in these times of economic recession, prisons are a tricky issue. People who live in jail or prison towns like Ontario, Pendleton, Wilsonville, or Madras, may feel that our communities rely on the funding that comes with the prison industry to provide important jobs and economic activity. It’s proven that the “lock ‘em up” mentality gains political traction in elections, even if not in the long run.

But on the other hand, what are the real costs of prisons? In the end, prisons are funded by taxpayers, but a prison society also has very significant human costs. How many of us have friends or family members whose lives have been derailed because of crime, because they’ve been the victim of a crime, because they’ve fallen into criminal activities, or because they’re undocumented and fear of law enforcement? I know I do.

What if we could switch our priorities and invest all of that money in things that actually seek root causes to prevent crime: schools, prevention programs, drug & mental health treatment, sports and music programs, community centers? In ROP’s Democratic Economy Roundtables, many communities have identified the lack of activities to keep youth busy as a primary economic concern. Without decent jobs as a goal and a career ladder to motivate youth to get there, we won’t be able to keep young people safe in our communities and on the right track. It’s all about priorities.

So how did we get so many prisons anyway?

In 1994, Oregonians passed Measure 11, which imposed mandatory minimum sentences on 21 offenses and required juveniles charged with these crimes to be automatically treated as adults. In just 15 years since then, Oregon’s prison system has almost quadrupled in price, to the point that the state now spends more on its prison system than on higher education!

Meanwhile, there are many proven alternatives to incarceration that do a better job at helping to rebuild lives and communities and actually reduce crime for everybody. But, ballot measure 73 would continue this trend, and cost up to $60 million a biennium when fully implemented, at a time when Oregon is in a fiscal crisis and critical programs are in jeopardy of being cut.

Criminalization is the primary strategy for our immigration policies at this point as well. The number of deportations has gone up every single year in the last 3 years, and 2010 looks like it will be top all. This is due to what some call “crimmigration” the new merging of the criminal system with the immigration system. Not only do we spend over $8 billion a year now in finding, detaining, prosecuting, and deporting undocumented people, even though it’s been documented that most of the people being targeted are just peaceful members of our communities – not criminals, who have huge economic contributions, here to work and raise their families in safety and with opportunities to better themselves and their families, just like anybody.

When we break up these families and don’t recognize the huge contributions of immigrants to our state, we undercut our society’s chance at being prosperous and economically stable. And we must ask ourselves, is family separation and criminalization of human beings really our primary priority?

So now, back to Measure 73 – we wanted to let you know as a last thought that Oregon is fortunate to have a group that brings together crime victims and people convicted of crimes to work towards mutual solutions that make us all safer and more likely to prosper. The Partnership for Safety and Justice is an excellent resource for those looking for more background on the issue of prisons in Oregon, or on Measure 73. See their website for more information at

For a tomorrow where more of us can be free,


P.S. To help us all deepen our understanding of how prisons work in our state, the ACLU of Oregon has offered to mail each of our member groups a free copy of their new report, called “Oregon’s School-to-Prison Pipeline,” which highlights some of the racial and civil rights issues related to prisons. We’ve previewed the report and hope it will be useful and interesting to you. If you’d like to be sure you receive one in the mail, please contact