Stephan Hochhaus,  

Before he was elected to the Oregon statehouse, Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, spent 29 years as an officer and lieutenant with the Oregon State Police.

During those years, particularly during his time in Klamath Falls and Cottage Grove, he says, Olson saw children affected when their parents were arrested for criminal offenses.

“You wished we could have had a track in place to have helped and kept families together. There’s consequences with committing crimes, but you have to ask yourself is there some means we can break the cycle?” he says.

Olson is now the Republican co-sponsor of a House bill that creates a separate track for offenders who are parents with custody of their children.

Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, is the driving force behind the measure known as HB 3503.

The bill gives judges the discretion to sentence eligible parents facing prison sentences of a year or more to 24 months of probation instead. It also gives the Department of Corrections the ability to reduce sentences by six months for some parents who are already serving time.

“It’s focused on children, and keeping the family together,” Williamson says. “I know that is a bipartisan issue.”

The representatives say the bill builds on work they did last session shortening some prison sentences slightly in an effort to slow the growth of Oregon’s prison population. Williamson and Olson say their new proposal could improve outcomes for families and save the state more money by reducing the amount of women in prison and avoiding the costs associated with placing the children of inmates in foster care.

To be eligible, offenders would have to show that they had physical custody of their child at the time of their offense, and had never been convicted of a violent crime or sex crime.

Courts could impose conditions including electronic surveillance, drug and alcohol treatment, and parenting classes.

The bill is modeled on a program in Washington state, called the Parenting Sentencing Alternative, that gives judges and the Department of Corrections the ability to waive or shorten sentences for some non-violent offenders. They are allowed to return home to parent, supervised by the Department of Corrections and state social workers.  In Washington, 237 parents have successfully finished the program.

Williamson and Olson say the bill they’ve introduced is a placeholder; they will flesh out their proposal in an April 15 work session.

The representatives are meeting with county officials to identify what kind of social work and wraparound services the state would need to provide to make the sentencing alternative work. They want to test the family sentencing alternative as a pilot program in three counties first, and Multnomah and Marion counties have expressed interest.

About 200 women in state prison are from Multnomah County, and roughly half of them are parents who could be eligible for the program, according to testimony the county submitted in support of the draft bill.

Susie Leavell manages the Parenting Sentencing Alternative program in Washington. Level says she has heard particularly powerful feedback on the program from the teachers of children whose parents are given an alternative sentence.

“When mom returns home, they see an improvement around hygiene, being on time to school, their homework is being turned in and they are meeting their grade level expectations,” Leavell says.

Leavell also says the program is saving Washington money, though she can’t say exactly how much. According to Leavell, it costs roughly $31 a day to supervise an offender in the community in Washington, compared to $91 a day for incarcerated inmates.

The program has helped prevent sending 44 children to foster care in Washington, and 8 children have come out of foster care and returned to their parents.

“Some of those kinds of savings are harder to measure than your black and white savings in terms of daily costs,” Leavell says.

About two out of three offenders who have participated in the program have successfully completed it. Leavell says of the 237 who completed the program, 22 have been re-arrested and 16, or 7 percent, have returned to prison on a new felony.

The general return to prison rate, or recidivism rate, in Washington is 29 percent.