Legislator again proposes early release of terminally ill prisoners in Oregon

Originally published by Oregon Capital Chronicle. For more coverage related to Oregon state government, politics and policy, visit the Oregon Capital Chronicle website.

Oregon lawmakers will get a new look at a proposal to release elderly or sick prisoners who have terminal illnesses.

State Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, told a legislative committee on Monday that he plans to reintroduce a bill that failed in the 2021 Legislature. It wasn’t ready, he acknowledged, adding that a work group has been meeting every two weeks to iron out the details.

“We’re experiencing a medical crisis in our prisons,” Dembrow told the Senate Interim Judiciary and Ballot Measure 110 Committee. “We have an increasingly older population in our prisons. It’s among the oldest of any of the states.”

The proposal from the work group would establish a medical advisory committee made up of professionals to review each case. Only inmates with a terminal illness who have 12 months or less to live or who cannot care for themselves independently would be eligible for release. Inmates who are considered to be a danger to the community or who committed a Measure 11 crime, including rape, assault, arson, manslaughter or murder, would not be eligible. And a placement for the inmate in the community would have to be found before the inmate would be let out of prison.

The proposal aims to correct Oregon’s compassionate release mechanism, according to Zach Winston, policy director for the nonprofit Oregon Justice Resource Center.

Though that provision is supposed to allow for the release of prisoners with a terminal illness, it has only led to two people being freed early since 2011, Winston testified.

The proposal also would be a money saver, according to Rep. Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland. A pediatrician, she’s been working with Dembrow on the bill.

The cost of caring for sick inmates now falls on the state Department of Corrections. Most prisoners who are released would qualify for Medicare or Medicaid, which are largely funded through federal dollars.

The proposal would start off with a pilot phase, allowing the release of a maximum of five inmates a month.

“This bill will give Oregon a chance to be a national leader,” Reynolds said.

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