- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Facing an unexpected influx of inmates and overly ambitious budget-cutting targets, the Oregon Department of Corrections is asking the state Legislature for cash to help keep the agency’s budget afloat.

Officials say it’s too soon to say last year’s sentencing reforms, which were supposed to keep the prison population flat, are not working. But the request for $41 million comes at a time when cash is scarce in Salem.

Lawmakers have held back 2 percent of every state agency’s budget and are now warning that most will see very little of it. The Department of Human Services and the Oregon Health Authority also have big gaps to fill.

The agency’s request for $41 million would cover almost half of a $90 million anticipated shortfall in its two-year budget. Corrections officials say they anticipate seeking another $28 million from the Legislature’s Emergency Board later and hope savings will fill the rest of the gap.

Shortly after the budget was adopted last summer, the corrections department saw its population spike, according to a memo to lawmakers from agency director Colette Peters. It’s slowed a bit since peaking in December, but on Friday there were 172 more inmates than anticipated.

Inmate populations fluctuate every day, and variance from the forecast is common, said Craig Prins, executive director of the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission. The current spike can be blamed on coincidence, he said.

The spike came despite the Legislature’s decision last year to shorten or eliminate prison sentences for a handful of crimes and allow certain inmates to be released earlier onto parole. The goal was to slow the rate of growth in the prison population and use the savings to boost spending on parole, probation and programs that reduce recidivism.

The Department of Corrections budget counts on the changes saving nearly $20 million.

Prins and others involved in crafting the reforms say it’s not alarming that they have been slow to reduce the population.

“Passing a bill was in some ways the easier part,” said Shannon Wright, associate director of the Partnership for Safety and Justice. “The harder part is implementing those practices and making sure they have the intended impact.”

The savings can’t be achieved overnight, said Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican who chairs the budget committee responsible for public safety spending. Judges and parole officers have to get up to speed, and shorter prison stays are only recently starting to kick in. The changes apply only to people who hadn’t yet been sentenced, so it will take time for them to reach the tail end of their incarceration.

“It’s not a pill we give them to not recidivate. We have to teach them to not recidivate,” said Darrell Fuller, a lobbyist for the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association.

On top of the inmate influx, the corrections department is anticipating salary increases for union workers and managers and struggling to find $78 million in cuts mandated by the Legislature. Lawmakers said the cuts could not come from closing a prison or laying off workers.

“We didn’t think the targeted savings were too ambitious,” said Betty Bernt, a spokeswoman for the Department of Corrections. “There are always risks, but we remain optimistic that we will achieve results this biennium.”

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