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Home arrow Opinion arrow Editorials arrow Misplaced priorities

Misplaced priorities

Among the things we like about the Powder River Correctional Facility is that when we see inmates outside the prison walls, they’re supposed to be there.

And they’re doing worthwhile work.

No inmate has escaped from the minimum-security prison for years.

But inmate work crews, available for free due to a subsidy from the state general fund, have continued to help local public agencies and nonprofits with tasks the groups couldn’t have afforded to hire out.

At least the crews did until recently.

Starting July 1 the Oregon Department of Corrections canceled that subsidy. The cut was part of the state’s effort to trim $577 million in spending for the rest of the two-year budget cycle, which ends June 30, 2011.

Groups can still get an inmate crew but only for a price. And that price — $458 for a 10-man crew for eight hours — is too steep for nonprofits such as Community Connection that rely largely on volunteers for tasks such as shoveling snow, landscaping and moving heavy stuff here and there.

Now we’ll concede that $577 million is quite a lot more than change stuck between the state’s cushions.

And even the Department of Corrections share — $52 million — is significant.

But the relevant number — the amount of the subsidy for inmate crews from Powder River and several other state prisons — is vastly smaller.

It’s $918,000, actually.

The Department of Corrections saved more than that — $960,000 — by eliminating in-service training for employees.

And it saved almost that much — $734,000 — by moving four regional safety managers to a different department.

Yet officials apparently are powerless to spare a program that not only supplies a valuable service to public facilities such as libraries and museums, but also helps the state comply with a 1994 voter-approved amendment to the Oregon Constitution (Measure 17) that requires inmates to work.

That the Department of Corrections can fulfill both goals for the relative pittance of $918,000 seems to us a fine example of government thriftiness.

If only state administrators would display the same sense of savvy in saving the inmate work crew system as they did in creating it.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who ordered all state agencies to cut spending after the $577 million projection came out, wisely scrapped the Department of Corrections’ initial proposal to close Powder River and two other minimum-security prisons.

The governor ought to defend the inmate work crew subsidy with the same vigor.

 
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