Budget crunch cools progress on new prison

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SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Construction of a 532-bed prison south of Junction City, which was to begin this summer, could be delayed because of the state's budget problems and a potential change to a criminal sentencing law.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, said a legislative work group, of which he is a member, is considering whether to delay implementation of Measure 57, which sets prison terms for property and drug crimes. The prison near Junction City was to house about one-third of the 1,700 nonviolent offenders expected to enter prison because of the measure approved by voters in November.

"If we delay Measure 57, that would take some of the need for an additional prison to be built immediately," Prozanski said.

Prozanski said the Legislature is not looking to cancel plans for the Junction City corrections complex, which will also include a medium-security prison and a 360-bed mental hospital. "We're not looking at whether to build in Junction City. It's when will it be built," Prozanski said.

But Gov. Ted Kulongoski, in an interview with The Register-Guard newspaper, was less committed to the prisons, saying he may seek "a discussion with the public" about changes to sentencing laws that would lessen the need for prison construction. He said a scaling back of Measure 11, the mandatory-minimum sentencing law for violent criminals passed by voters in 1994, could be in that discussion.

"I would like to find a policy that would actually put the overhead cost of running the prison into the education system, which would be a much better investment, as far as I'm concerned," Kulongoski said.

With Oregon's projected budget deficit climbing toward $4 billion, state leaders are looking to trim prison costs. Kulongoski's December budget proposal included the sale of $350 million in bonds to build the Junction City prisons. "It was in my budget, but the question is, given the economy and what has happened, whether there will be a change in priorities," he said.

Kulongoski continues to strongly support the mental hospital proposed for Junction City. It would open in 2013, employing 1,300 people.

"The hospital piece is easy for me," the governor said. "The answer is yes."

(Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.)