Have Oregonians Imprisoned Themselves?

I grew up near Chicago when Wisconsin sold alcohol to 18-year-olds and Illinois didn’t, so it’s disorienting to hear about lawmakers traveling south over the border between those states as an act of rebellion. It just doesn’t seem right.

But then I hear the protests in Madison being compared to the protests in Cairo and I’m reminded how wrong something can be. The Middle East is fighting for freedom. The Middle West is fighting for freedom from doctor visit co-pays or defined contribution pension plans. Not the same.

To what are all people entitled? We very wisely listed them up front in our nation’s first document: life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Fully funded check-ups didn’t make the short list. Freedom did.

But we’re not in Wisconsin. We’re in Oregon. We think there’s no upheaval going on in Oregon that is being caused by extra entitlements being claimed by the public sector. Not true.

In 1994, Oregonians passed a tough-on-crime initiative by referendum. Measure 11 garnered a 65% majority. A move to repeal the initiative was thumped in 2000 by a 3-to-1 margin.

We passed it to give ourselves something to which we felt entitled: a feeling of safety.

Boston had its Tea Party, protesting taxation without representation. Our rebellion was Measure 11, led by demagoguing Kevin Mannix. It made no mention of how we would pay for it. Oregon pioneered “representation without taxation.”

Remember that classic scene from Blazing Saddles, where the new sheriff of Brockridge takes himself hostage: “Oh lordy, he’s desperate. Do what he say, do what he say!”

That’s us, slowly robbing from ourselves, insisting that we’re not bluffing, frightening passersby that we’re “just crazy enough to do it.”

We put people away, often for long periods for non-violent crimes, because removing them from society was easier that making them into productive citizens. “Out of sight, out of mind” writ large. But recently the strategy has come back into view.

A draft report addressing the efficacy of the measure has been circulating this month and it shows it has not performed as promised. But never mind recidivism rates and sentence standardization, and refocus on the public entitlement behind it.

Did you get what you expected? Do you feel safer now? Has it been worth it?

Did you answer yes to all three questions? Great. Now look at what that money used to buy but can’t.

It costs $36,060 to keep one Oregonian behind bars for a year, according to the U.S. Justice Department. University of Oregon estimates that a year of tuition, plus room and board, will cost an in-state student $26,200. The U.S. Census pegs Oregon’s per capita wage income at $20,940.

Think of it this way. If two Oregonians adopted one Oregonian inmate for a year, the two not in prison would have $5,820 left to live on for a year, after paying the costs of the incarcerated one, assuming no taxes for any other purpose.

The corrections budget has swelled to 11 percent of the state’s general fund. All the trends point in the wrong direction.

At a time when Oregon lacks affordable housing across the state, we the people find ourselves paying more and more for fully subsidized unaffordable housing. The squeeze on the state’s budget leaves less money for schools, which means fewer teachers.

Eventually, we won’t be able to afford any teachers in our schools, but don’t blame the unions unless you also blame yourself, because your taxes are increasingly devoted to building and maintaining an alternative to education.

What you call a school where attendance is required but supervision is limited to hall monitors? A prison.

We claim we’re stuck but we’re not. We the people can repeal Measure 11, or we can raise our taxes. We can reinvest in education, affordable housing and social services — expenditures that are proven to reduce prison populations. We can learn from our mistake and correct course.

If we get a remedy on the ballot, I hope those who like the status quo in Oregon will follow the lead of Wisconsin lawmakers. I hope they flee the state while the rest of us vote.

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Don Kahle (fridays@dksez.com) writes a weekly column for The Register-Guard and blogs here.