In the final days of the Legislature, lawmakers took an important step to help communities across Oregon address the crippling effects of drug addiction.
The new law reduces sentences for people convicted of possessing small amounts of six drugs. It also reclassifies the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.
It's a forward-thinking concept that rightly treats drug addiction as a public health issue. Yet its few critics have sought to paint the change as scary and irresponsible. It doesn't have to be.
Eighteen states, including neighbors California and Idaho, have already made similar changes to ease clogged courts, corrections and parole programs. Several Oregon counties also have reduced sentences paired with addiction treatment for some low-level drug offenders. In some cases, there's the potential for charges to be dismissed when treatment is completed, similar to diversion programs offered to people facing their first drunk-driving offense.
This new law more fairly offers these programs to all Oregonians, not just those who live in well-off counties with more resources.
But for these programs to work, state and local officials must commit to treatment options to be offered equally across the state. Money that would have gone to criminal prosecutions and jail time should be shifted to drug treatment and other support programs as has been done in California, where a similar law was passed in 2014.
It's unclear how much Oregon will save. It took California three years to figure that out. Early analyses predicted as much as $250 million in annual savings, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times. So far, it's closer to $43 million, in part because of the costs for more parolees.
California officials estimates about 3,300 fewer people end up in prison each year. In county jails, the daily average population is down by about 8,000 people.
To be sure the savings are funneled to the best programs, Oregon leaders should consider California's plan to set aside 65 percent of the cost savings to help released inmates find jobs and housing. Officials announced this spring they'll distribute $103 million in grants over the next three years to help public agencies deliver those services.
In Oregon, as in other states, the new strategy doesn't mean reduced sentences for drug dealers. People with past felony crimes are out of luck, as well as those with more than two misdemeanor possession convictions.
It also doesn't mean that the low-level offenders won't be punished at all. People found with small amounts of drugs face a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a $6,250 fine, or both. What's different is they'll have a better shot at a future once they've paid their dues.
In the past, offenders faced more prison time and often, they didn't have access to treatment while incarcerated. Coming out with a felony hurt their chances at a good job and affordable housing, making it that much harder to rebuild their lives. And so the revolving door spun.
That's why both the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the State Sheriffs' Association supported the change. But these law enforcement groups also stress that treatment options must be easily accessible and the results of these programs must be carefully tracked.
"We have been clear that we believe this policy will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy," wrote Kevin Campbell, executive director of the police chiefs' group, in testimony supporting House Bill 2355. "Reducing penalties without aggressively addressing underlying addiction is unlikely to help those who need it most and may result in other negative impacts to property crime rates and community livability."
Sentencing reductions could provide a life-changing opportunity for all Oregonians who struggle with drug abuse. Yet it's a particularly necessary change to begin righting the decades of wrongs that have led to a massive disparity in the population in Oregon's prisons and jails.
Recent studies have found that although minorities make up a small fraction of Oregon's population, they're more likely to be arrested than whites. And when they are, minorities are also more likely to see their cases referred to district attorneys' offices for prosecution.
This law is a good start. But lawmakers at both the state and local levels must commit to successfully making this societal shift by funding the programs to help Oregonians struggling with addiction.
Without that commitment, any goodwill in our communities will soon be lost as they watch same old, destructive patterns play out.