Josh Leslie knows how expensive auto theft can be.

He paid $405 to get his 1997 Subaru Legacy out of a towing lot last year after it was stolen from the street in front of his St. Johns home.

Leslie says he was disappointed when he heard that lawmakers last week had once again abandoned legislation intended to drive down the skyrocketing number of motor vehicle thefts in Portland—blaming their failure on excessive prison costs.

Leslie, still smarting from forking over cash to retrieve his car, doesn't buy that explanation.

"Cost doesn't seem like a good reason to not have good public policy," he says. "It's one of those things where somebody is paying for it—and I'd rather pay for it as a taxpayer than as an individual."

Legislators had a chance to pass a bill in the session that ended March 3 that would have made it easier to prosecute motor vehicle thefts, addressing one of the biggest crime problems in the state. Instead, they left Salem a week early.

The bill's failure is puzzling, given that not a single legislator spoke out against it and two of the state's most diametrically opposed lobbying groups—the Oregon District Attorneys and Criminal Defense Lawyers associations—both agreed it should pass.

(Abby Gordon)
(Abby Gordon)

As WW reported in November, Portland's auto-theft rate is the third-highest per capita among major U.S. cities ("Car Jack City," WW, Nov. 29, 2017). That's in large part because of an Oregon Court of Appeals ruling that makes it difficult to convict defendants caught behind the wheel of a purloined car unless they confess to stealing it.

Lawmakers crafted a bill that would close the loophole—then left Salem without bringing it to the floor.

Nearly everyone who worked on the legislation is eager to blame someone else.

"This bill was a priority for me this session," claims House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland), who sponsored the bill. "We've been working on this really since the end of last session."

In 2017, a very similar bill died in committee because of a multimillion-dollar fiscal impact statement. The statement estimated the costs of incarcerating and supervising new prison inmates created by the bill.

Williamson, who also chairs the House Rules Committee, held a public hearing last month where several public officials testified in favor of the bill, including Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, and no one spoke against it. But the majority leader never scheduled a vote on it in her committee, which means it died there.

Williamson blames prosecutors, saying the Oregon District Attorneys Association wouldn't compromise on two changes that would have reduced the estimated cost of the bill.

She suggested the bill either reduce the minimum sentencing guidelines for motor vehicle theft or create a new crime classified as a misdemeanor that would not carry any prison time. She says she was frustrated prosecutors wouldn't give more ground.

But prosecutors had already given up a lot.

Ryan Lufkin, a Multnomah County deputy district attorney, worked with the Department of Justice and the Oregon Criminal Defense Lawyers Association to craft the wording of House Bill 4161. He compromised this time around, allowing his opponents to soften the bill's language and require prosecutors to prove that suspected thieves were "aware of and consciously disregard[ed] a substantial and unjustifiable risk" that they were driving a stolen car.

"We are surprised, frustrated and disappointed that HB 4161 did not pass this session," Lufkin says, "particularly because we worked hard with our partners to craft a bill that ultimately was without any opposition in the rules committee hearing."

Lufkin contested the estimated costs of the bill from the beginning. He testified in a public hearing that the Criminal Justice Commission's analysis of how many additional prison beds would be needed was skewed. The CJC used 2017's record-high arrest rates to project future arrest rates—but Lufkin told the Legislature the bill would start driving down motor vehicle theft if it passed and would reduce those numbers.

Ken Sanchagrin, who put together the CJC numbers, admits the estimate is only a guess.

"Instead of making assumptions of where [arrest rates] would go in the future, we decided to keep it flat," he says. "The bill may actually drive it down, but we can't quantify that."

Williamson didn't fault just prosecutors in general for the bill's failure—she named one in particular.

She pins the blame on Clackamas County District Attorney John Foote, who is locked in an unrelated court battle with the Legislature over sentencing reforms.

Foote filed a lawsuit last month challenging a bill that would reduce prison sentences for some property crimes, alleging the Legislature did not have the required two-thirds majority to change voter-approved criminal sentencing measures.

Williamson says if Foote prevails, prison costs will rise significantly.

"I think John Foote's lawsuit directly resulted in our inability to address this issue, because we are so uncertain with our corrections budget," Williamson says.

Foote replies that Oregon's prison population is decreasing, compared to its overall population. He points to the spring forecast of the prison population in the next 10 years that projected 4 percent growth in the number of prisoners despite Oregon's population growing 12 percent.

"Rep. Williamson apparently thinks it's good public policy to save money by not holding serious repeat property criminals responsible for their behavior," Foote says. "I happen to think holding serious criminals accountable is part of the basic services government can provide to its citizens."

Williamson says she'll reintroduce the bill in 2019.

Meanwhile, Portland police figures show 2018 is already on track to see as many motor vehicle thefts as last year if not more.