Connecting the Dots

By Jodi Hansen

It’s Wednesday Night and I’m in Prison 

I spend my Wednesday evenings at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. This is the only women’s prison in the state of Oregon and on any given day houses approximately 1,300 women. And no, I am not there doing my time in weekly installments. I have been serving as a religious services volunteer for over eight years.  In the time I have been leading bible studies and worship services at CCCF I have met many women who have shared their stories of crime, imprisonment and a desire to do better. Sometimes the stories sound far-fetched, but unless a woman invites me to look her up on the Oregon Offender Search website, or to do a Google search for news stories about her crimes, I refrain from doing any research and simply take her at her word. 

But, this was unbelievable!

A few years ago, I met a woman (let’s call her Emma) who told me the nature of her crime and the nature of her sentence.  I was shocked! Emma had committed identity theft. She had seven victims of whom she had, in total, defrauded less than $50,000.  But, during the charging phase of her adjudication, the DA split each crime into three separate crimes: one charge for the ID she used, one charge for the credit cards, and one for the counterfeit checks—twenty-one counts of ID theft in all.  The DA then stacked the charges, which would be served consecutively, one after another. Because measure 57 (mandatory minimum sentencing legislation passed by Oregon voters years ago) mandated harsh penalties for these kinds of crimes, she would be staying at Coffee Creek for a long while. 

According to the offender search I made (at her insistence that I do one), she is serving 14 years, at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $47,000 a year. A quick bit of math and I learned that the state is spending over $600,000 to keep someone locked up for a crime that was not violent and cost the victims less than $10,000 each. Not the best return on investment if you ask me.

Wait, there’s more!  

Emma often laments that she will not receive any drug treatment while she serves this long sentence because her charges were not directly drug related, even though the impulse that drove her to commit these crimes was addiction to meth and heroin. She desperately wants a better life moving forward and knows that drug treatment will be key to her achieving her goals when she is released in 2027.

And now that she is sober and thinking clearly, she says she wants to pay back the money she stole from the victims. She had a good paying job in construction before drugs sent her life into a spiral that led her to commit ID theft. She often exclaims, “Please send me to treatment and put me back to work! Put an ankle bracelet on me and monitor my every move while I work to pay back my debt to society and to my victims!”

Instead she was given a long, unproductive, and expensive sentence with court ordered restitution of only $356.75.  

Meanwhile, back in Yamhill County… 

In February, I attended the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council meeting where the presiding judge of our county asked us to be aware that he may be looking at making cuts. A request for additional state funding had been made, but did not look good.

A few weeks ago, my husband, who is an attorney in our area, shared that the funds did not come through. The state of Oregon simply doesn’t have the money to continue operating our judicial departments at full capacity. The adult drug courts were consolidated from two to one, which effectively required the staff to do more with less, while vacant positions will remain unfilled. A friend of mine was demoted—complete with pay cut—but is close to retirement, so needs to stay. 

The irony was not lost on me as I connected the dots and exclaimed to my husband (in my out-loud voice with hands flailing in the air), “The state can afford to keep thousands of nonviolent drug offenders locked up to the tune of fifty thousand a year EACH, but can’t afford to keep the drug courts operating? Really!?!?”

I wonder what else the state can’t afford to fund because people like Emma cost so much to incarcerate…