Brown Considers Prison vs. Preschool Decision

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is set to release her blueprint for the next two years of state government spending. While the needs created by the pandemic are at the forefront, spending decisions that could have long term impacts are also being decided, one of which being whether or not to decrease the amount of money put into two small rural prisons to save money.  

One alternative Brown mentioned is expanding preschool, which has been shown to improve opportunities throughout a child’s life and reduce tax payers cost by doing things such as increasing the odds a participant will pay taxes on a good income and reduce the chance of prison.  

This decision comes as states try to reduce disproportionate impacts on people of color by the criminal justice system.  

The Department of Corrections accounts for roughly 8% of the state’s $25 billion general fund and lottery budget, with its two-year budget being $2 billion. DOC developed a large shortfall due to treating inmate’s health conditions and had to layoff 24 employees this spring.  

Top budget writers proposed closing Shutter Creek Correctional Institution in North Bend and Warner Creek Correctional Institution in Lakeview this summer to shore up the budget. The Governor supported the idea. However, lawmakers from both parties argued to save the jobs in those towns and the Legislature left the prisons intact.  

OregonLive reviewed the documents, which showed people in those communities focusing on their community’s economic reliance on the prisons. 

Carl Filler, a state policy analysist with the Justice Actions Network, a group based in Washington, D.C. that works with both parties at a federal and state level, said in an interview with OregonLive that public safety considerations should drive prison closing decisions. Filler said that many studies have shown prisons do not offer significant economic support to communities. 

“There really isn’t a moral or economic case to build or continue to maintain these prisons,” he said.  

In August, the Governor said taxpayer money put towards prisons was a poor investment. “I think, and the evidence shows, that we can be much smarter in our approach to tackling crime,” Brown said to OregonLive. “We can safely close prisons, keep our communities safe and reduce taxpayers’ expenses.” 

Brown said a single bed in prison cost more than $40,000 a year, saying the investment would be better returned by putting the money toward early childhood education. 

Corrections officials estimate staffing the two correctional facilities for the two-year budget alone would cost the public $41.6 million.  

Brown’s administration declined an interview request from OregonLive for information about prison and early childhood education spending plans before the public release of the information.  

Press secretary Liz Merah emailed OregonLive saying, “Ultimately, the governor would like to reduce our state’s reliance on incarceration and invest more dollars in the program areas that work to prevent incarceration in the first place, such as education, mental health treatment and addictions treatment.” 

Though the state expanded subsidized programs for preschool children from low-and moderate- income families in 2019, an Education Department proposal estimates the state serves less than 30% of eligible children and families.  

By: Hannah Ramsey