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As you may know, I’ve recently relocated to Portland, Oregon. The Portlandia TV comedy narrative would have you believe this is a town full of loveable counter-culture stereotypes; under-employed dreamers, kombucha-swilling hippies, and coffee-obsessed yoga-rock-climbers, to name a few.
PORTLAND IS NOT PORTLANDIA
It is fair to say that on the West Coast, the tech boom of the nineties – centred on Seattle, San Francisco and Silicon Valley – bypassed Portland. And the joke is that people pursued fire-eating, tattoos and weed instead of HTML and Java-code.
But Portland is not a harmless bubble populated only by self-aware, contented contrarians. Portland has the same problems with failing schools, violence and inequality as many large U.S. cities. Furthermore, the State of Oregon as a whole has seen dwindling public funds for education as measured against its burgeoning law enforcement and corrections budgets.
As a reality check, I’d like to recommend two articles.
Firstly, Our preoccupation with incarceration costs us in education, by Naivasha Dean in Street Roots:
Oregon is one of only a handful of states in the nation that spends more money on prisons than on higher education, a statistic that is often met with dropped jaws by students struggling for financial aid. The Department of Corrections has been one of the fastest growing state agency budgets that is eating up an ever-increasing percentage of the state’s General Fund. This does not bode well for Oregon’s future and represents a deeply misplaced set of priorities and an archaic approach to addressing crime and public safety.
Why is Oregon’s prison spending so out of control? Oregon can trace the trend directly back to 1994, when voters approved Ballot Measure 11. Measure 11 established mandatory minimum sentences for approximately 20 “person-to-person” crimes, and it automatically sends youth charged with any of those crimes, aged 15 and over, directly to adult court. Mandatory minimums are a one-size-fits-all approach to criminal sentencing that prevent judges from using their discretion and prevents Oregon from using smarter approaches to accountability and crime prevention.
Shortly after the passage of Measure 11, Oregon’s governor and legislature approved plans for more than 8,000 new prison beds, including siting for six new prisons. Since then, the legislature has authorized more than $1 billion for prison construction. As anticipated, Oregon’s prison population exploded — from 6,000 inmates in 1995 to more than 14,000 today, and the Department of Corrections budget more than tripled.
Secondly, Portland, the US capital of alternative cool, takes TV parody in good humor, by Paul Harris. This Guardian article, partly, dispels the temptation to get carried away with TV’s version of PDX life:
Portlandia is not the whole picture of life in Portland. Not everyone is white, urbane, child-free and in their 20s, or acting as if they are. In fact the city is 8% black and 9% Hispanic– communities that often live in poorer neighbourhoods that are gentrifying with newcomers who push out long-established families who can no longer afford rents.
Portland also has a problem with gang violence. [...] One man who sees this side of Portland close-up is John Canda, founder of gang outreach group Connected. “I personally have been to 358 funerals,” he said of two decades working in the field. Connected, formed last year after a series of shootings, seeks to lessen violence by having volunteers walk the troubled streets, reaching out to Portland’s youth.
“Our message is talk with us. It starts with a greeting,” he said. For Canda, as a native black Portlander, the world of Portlandia and its concerns over recycling and organic food seem unreal. “It is like a parallel universe,” he said.
Graph courtesy of the Prison Policy Initiative.