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Oregon Lawmakers Unveil Plan For Reducing Prison Population Amid COVID-19

<p>Special housing cells at an Oregon Department of Corrections prison.</p>
<p>Special housing cells at an Oregon Department of Corrections prison.</p>

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases climbed to nearly 180 inmates and staff in Oregon's prison system, Democratic state lawmakers unveiled a proposal Monday to consider the release of about 1,975 adults in state custody.

“We already know we’re going to have another wave coming in the fall,” said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee. “We need to be planning now.”

Lawmakers emphasized that they're not suggesting an “opening of the doors and letting everyone out” policy. Inmates would need to meet certain criteria to be eligible for early release, and each case would be evaluated individually.

The Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem already has one of the state’s largest outbreaks — with 139 positive cases and 36 staff members who have tested positive as of Monday.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, said it’s even more important to consider inmates as the rest of the world starts to emerge from quarantine.

“As the outside world reopens, paradoxically things become more dangerous for those on the inside, because it will be easier for the disease to get inside and take off,” Debrow said.

The proposal from state lawmakers comes on the heels of a request from Gov. Kate Brown, who has asked the Department of Corrections to provide a “case-by-case” analysis of medically vulnerable inmates by June 22. The DOC expects about 100 inmates could fit the criteria outlined by the governor and potentially be eligible for early release, according to the governor’s office.

None of the inmates who are under consideration — either under the governor’s plan or the legislature’s — have committed a violent crime against another person.

“It’s crucial that we have a plan in place for reducing current pressures on the system over the next six to eight months,” the group of lawmakers wrote in a policy briefing. “It will be even more crucial if we must consider closing and consolidating prisons as a result of budget cuts, which will make our facilities even more crowded.”

To be considered for release, inmates would need to have housing identified, test negative for COVID-19 and be released into a county that has already started Phase 1 of reopening.

Lawmakers urged the governor to focus on three groups of inmates. The first group, about 123 people, are those with underlying conditions such as chronic lung or kidney disease who have served at least 50% of their sentences. Once inmates in this group have identified housing, they should be considered for immediate release, according to the lawmakers' proposal.

The second group, about 473 adults in custody with the state plus another 11 from Multnomah County, are scheduled to be released within 120 days and have housing lined up.

The final group, currently about 1,078 people in state custody and another 235 from Multnomah County, are those who are scheduled to be released within 180 days but don’t have housing lined up. These people would be under consideration for release once housing was identified.

House Republican Leader Christine Drazan, of Canby, urged caution when it comes to releasing people from prison.

“Victim’s voices matter, and their needs and rights should be considered before any early releases are considered,” Drazan said in a written statement. “We must ensure justice is served, truth in sentencing is maintained and that our counties are fully prepared and have the resources they need to properly monitor and support reentry.”

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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