Smiling woman in pink shirt

As chair of Oregon's Senate Judiciary Committee, Ginny Burdick understands the imbalances in the state's criminal justice system. PT talks to her about practical ways to reduce crime and save Oregon tax dollars in the process. 

PT: You've spearheaded many efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Oregon. What would you say is the predominant concern at the moment?

Burdick: The real issue is a question of resources. Incarcerating people is terribly expensive, and it's a zero sum game—for every dollar we spend locking someone up, that's a dollar that is not spent on childhood health care or education. The challenge is how we can ensure public safety most effectively. A system that relies mainly upon incarceration neglects this principle because it's neither effective nor efficient.

We have been making a real attempt to move toward evidence-based rehabilitation programs that are peer-reviewed and deemed effective. As we make that move, we can lower the recidivism rate, which is crucial. The driving force behind the prison construction boom is repeat criminals, and if you just stash everyone away in a warehouse for mand-atory sentences and don't deal with the problems that brought them there—drugs, alcohol, mental health—they're just going to be back again.

PT: What types of practical policies have you worked on recently to address these issues?

Burdick: I'm constantly trying to figure out alternatives to incarceration that will continue to provide for public safety. Last session I was one of the co-authors of the methamphetamine package. I was proud of the bill because it was very heavy on prevention and treatment and it didn't focus on incarceration, although tougher sentencing was included for the worst offenders. We became the first state in the country to require prescriptions for pseudo ephedrine and as a result, illegal meth labs went from 40 or 50 busts per month down to zero in December. And this was just from a very simple piece of legislation!

That's the way we need to be thinking. We need to be thinking in terms of prevention and treatment to really deal with the factors that make people commit criminal acts in the first place, if for no other reason than because it's extremely cost effective.

PT: Criminal justice is an emotional, politically charged issue though. It sometimes seems like practicality and cost/benefit ratios don't hold up in these discussions the way they do in other arenas.

Burdick: I see glimmers of hope, but there's still a very adamant group of people out there—district attorneys, victims' rights groups, other members of law enforcement—that argue that the government's top priority is to lock these people away via "truth in sentencing." I consider myself to be somewhere in the middle. I don't come at this from any type of sympathy for people who commit crimes; I'm very into personal accountability. However, we have to think about criminal justice and do it intelligently. I'm into protecting public safety as effectively and cheaply as possible.

PT: What can you say about public sentiment when it comes to crafting criminal justice policies? Does it have a big effect?

Burdick: Yes, there's a real hysteria around crime. I don't even think it's the real crime rate either; I think it's the perceived crime rate. If you have a few violent crimes all at once, they're in the news—the old expression is "if it bleeds, it leads" you know? That hasn't been helpful. But people oversimplify.

A woman came into my office once and said, "You've got to do something about Measure 11 (Oregon's mandatory sentencing law). My sister was in the wrong place at the wrong time and she's going to have to serve seven years. The judge knew that she hadn't really done anything wrong, but he had no choice because of Measure 11."

I just looked at her and said, "How did you vote on Measure 11?" Of course, she had voted for it, as 72% of the people did. She argued that her vote for Measure 11 was aimed at gangs and murderers. But you know what? You have to be careful what you vote for. The public needs to be involved in this discussion. They need to understand that the cheap, easy fix—lock 'em up and throw away the key—actually comes at a tremendous cost.

PT: What are some of the other things Oregon has been doing to tackle recidivism and the roots of criminal behavior?

Burdick: One of the biggest areas of expansion has come in the form of drug and mental health courts. These have been very successful when set up right. The most important thing you need to get a drug court going and make it successful is a committed judge. Of course, you need the funding to support them, but we've heard testimony in the judiciary committee that drug courts save money not only in the long run, but all the way through the process. When you consider the alternatives, it's an extremely low-cost way of dealing with the roots of criminal behavior.

PT: Are there any overburdened actors in the criminal justice system, or actors who are dealing with an inappropriately reduced role?

Burdick: I worry about the reduced role for our judges. We have just chipped away at judicial discretion for so long. As part of Measure 11, we have a mandatory waiver to adult court for any juvenile 15 or older who commits a violent crime. There is no judicial discretion. I've introduced a bill to try to change that, and although I'm sure that in some cases it's appropriate, in other cases it may not be. A judge is in a much better position to discern that.

Through victims' rights groups and "tough on crime" initiatives, we've thrown more power into the hands of the district attorneys. DA's are calling a lot of the shots that judges used to call, and that's very worrisome to me.

PT: Senator, thank you for your time.

Ginny Burdick represents Oregon's 18th senate district. She is the chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.