• “The United States has more than twice the number of women in jails and prisons than are incarcerated in China, Russia, Brazil, or any other nation.” Equal Justice Initiative, August 26, 2016.
• Between 1980 and 2014, the number of incarcerated women increased by more than 700%. The Sentencing Project. • The imprisonment rate for women is increasing at a far greater rate than that for men. In Oregon, since 2007, the male population increased 2% while the female population increased 22%. Partnership for Safety and Justice (PSJ).
• Oregon’s female prison population soared after Ballot Measure 11 passed, necessitating the shift to a new prison in 2001 -- Coffee Creek Correctional Facility
• 70% of women in Oregon’s prisons were convicted of nonviolent property or drug crimes. PSJ.
• 85-90% of women in prison have a history of being victims of violence prior to their incarceration, including |domestic violence, sexual violence, and child abuse.
• Seventy percent (70%) suffer from a mental illness.
• A 2007 study of women entering Oregon prisons found that 91% had co-occurring substance abuse/dependence and mood disorders.
• For the lack of 20 beds, the Oregon Department of Corrections asked the Legislature for $10 million to open another prison for women.
In 1980, I joined a now-defunct organization, Prisoners’ Legal Services of Oregon, as a staff attorney. At the time, Oregon had three prisons: the ancient maximum security Oregon State Penitentiary (OSP), the medium security Oregon State Correctional Institution (OSCI), and the women’s prison, Oregon Women’s Correctional Center (OWCC).
Today, there are 14 prisons. OWCC was built to house 80 prisoners. Historical records show a discrepancy regarding the number actually held in the 1980s – anywhere between 57 and 200. The 2015 female population at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility, which replaced OWCC in 2001, was at least six times greater at 1,263. The number of black women in prison is three times that of white women; for Latinas it is twice as many.
In 2013, the Legislature passed HB 3194, the Justice Reinvestment Act. Its purpose is to shift money from prisons to less expensive programs that keep people out of prison, such as addiction treatment, mental health services, community corrections, and re-entry programs, and prevent the building of additional costly prisons. Yet recently, only three years later, the Department of Corrections asked the Legislative Emergency Board for $10 million to build another prison for women. After a public outcry, the DOC reconsidered, though the request may still come before the Oregon Legislature in December 2016.
The crux of the problem is Oregon prosecutors who hold the power to decide which crimes to charge and what a defendant will accept as a plea to avoid a trial and possibly longer sentence. According to human rights groups, prosecutors are over-charging, sending more women to prison for longer periods (using Oregon’s Measure 11 mandatory minimum sentencing law*). They impeded and lessened the impact of HB 3194, the 2013 reform. And, some at least, are continuing to undermine efforts to reduce or flatline Oregon’s prison population. This, when Texas has closed three prisons and diverted hundreds of millions of dollars to programs that keep people out of prison.
As Shannon Wight, deputy director at Partnership for Safety and Justice, wrote in a recent Street Roots article:
“For now, though, we must look to county prosecutors to avoid this unnecessary state expense. Due to mandatory sentencing laws in Oregon, prosecutors have almost absolute control over who goes to prison and for how long. Instead of spending millions to open a new prison for women, legislators should be asking prosecutors to find more appropriate ways to sanction and support women who would otherwise go to prison when other approaches to accountability are more effective.
“Opening a new prison will not lower the rates of non-violent crimes, nor will it reduce the number of people affected by such crimes. We know that the most effective approaches to crime involve accountability, treatment and services to help people chart new and successful paths. Helping our community means investing in such programs, not incarcerating more women for non-violent offenses.” (August 18, 2016)
*Measure 11 passed by Oregon citizens in 1994 (and subsequent amendments) established harsh mandatory minimum sentences for 21 crimes. Judges cannot vary from that minimum, often 75 months, though the Oregon Supreme Court held that judges may consider individual circumstances in rare cases. Youth 15 years or older charged with a Measure 11 crime are automatically remanded to adult court and faced with the same mandatory minimum sentences.