How government is reinvesting in programs that save money and help rebuild lives

March 20, 2017

Michael Miyamura sits in the grass of Waterfront Park enjoying the sun. His deep brown eyes and solemn face gaze across the Willamette River, radiating confidence. Miyamura used to know these streets, this vista, in his old life. But things are different now.

This time, he’s returned with a home and an income, something he hasn’t had in years. This time, he’s sober after years of drug addiction. That life still haunts him. But at 50, he says, he’s finally starting to figure himself out.

“My life changed. It clicked,” he says. “I have to lead by example and I can’t be a criminal or a drug addict, or anything like, that to lead by example.”

Michael Miyamura is a Justice Reinvestment participant.

For Miyamura, that changed after he joined the Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment Program (MCJRP). After facing theft charges for stealing more than $16,000 worth of materials from cargo trains, he faced 10 years in prison. But the Justice Reinvestment program offered him another option.

Justice Reinvestment works just as it sounds. It takes some of the millions of dollars saved by keeping people out of prison and reinvests it into data-driven programs and strategies meant to hold offenders accountable and reduce recidivism.

In Multnomah County, instead of paying for costly prison beds, money is spent on community supervision, treatment and community services. People charged with certain crimes, including burglary, ID theft, or repeat drug offenses, are potential candidates. And unlike other justice programs, it’s not mandatory. Eligible offenders are asked if they’d like to take part.

Many choose the program over prison time.

Non-violent drug and property-crime offenders make up a significant portion of Oregon’s prison population -- and can cost the state tens of millions of dollars a year. Inmates in the prison system cost an average of $96.48 a day in 2015-17, according to the Oregon Department of Corrections.  In Multnomah County’s Justice Reinvestment program, the daily cost drops by 73 percent, to roughly $26 per client, according to a 2017 report by the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice.

Since Multnomah County’s program was enacted, proponents say, 30 percent fewer offenders have been sent to prison. And lives, like Miyamura’s, have been changed.

Miyamura says he’s struggled with drug addiction since he was 18. The program finally gave him the opportunities he needed.

“I learned the tools and skills to change and become something different, someone that I’ve always wanted to be but never was given the chance or the possibility to be,” he says. “It’s kind of hard to say that at 50 life is different.”

How Multnomah County Justice Reinvestment works

Multnomah County’s approach starts by meeting with offenders in the program, before they’re sentenced or reach a plea deal. All parties involved – the judge, defense attorney, district attorney, probation officer and the victim – meet to better understand the offender's personal story and past. This thorough assessment helps with case planning and shapes the proper sentence for the offender.

Oregon is also the only state in the nation to spends 10 percent of its Justice Reinvestment funding on victims organizations, helping them deliver services to current and future crime victims.

Miyamura, like many, was swept into the justice system after several repeat offenses. His addiction and criminal record have followed him throughout his life.

Born in Seattle in 1966, Miyamura was known as a mischievous child. In kindergarten, he would often leave class and run through the halls. His mother, Barbra Miyamura, says her son struggled early with Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).

Miyamura’s biological father moved out before he can remember, But his mother remarried when he was 5, and Miyamura’s new stepfather, embraced the family.

Miyamura considered his stepfather, as a father, though their relationship was often tested. He still remembers the sting of his stepdad's belt. And yet without him, Miyamura says, he would’ve lacked a solid support system.

“I was blessed to come from a broken family and have a stepdad that took me and my brothers in and treated us like we were his own,” Miyamura says. “And we accepted him as if he were a dad.”

Miyamura was a rambunctious child and hard to control. When he was 9, he went through a self-described pyromaniac stage – once setting his bunk bed on fire.

“Michael just did the craziest things sometimes,” his mother says. “I don’t know why he did it, and no one else could tell me, even in counseling. He’s just Michael.”

As he got older, his compulsive behavior brought him to drugs. By 16, he was binge drinking so much his parents couldn’t bear to see him in the house. At 17, Miyamura went to drug treatment.

“I was just frightened to death,” Barbra Miyamura says. “My husband told me, ‘One day you’re going to go wake him up for school, and he’s not going to wake up. You’ve got to accept that Mike's got a problem.’”

Michael spent 86 days in a drug-and-alcohol care unit in California. Then he spent six months in a neurological psychiatric ward for anger issues.

When he left, he headed for Oregon to make a new start. But his struggles with addiction only deepened. The next few years were a blur of crime and drug use, he says. When his stepfather passed after a stroke in 2000, he lost touch with his family.

He was married twice, in his 20s and 30s. And he was charged with multiple crimes -- spending time in jail, but never prison. His life had fallen into a vortex of addiction that he couldn’t escape.

“How do I know so much about addiction? Because I was right there smack dab in the middle of it,” he says. “She doesn’t care what color you are, what race you are, what sex you are, what you do, how many family members you got. Once she gets ahold of you, you’re all hers.”

After an early six-year stretch of sobriety, which followed a vicious methamphetamine addiction that nearly killed him, Miyamura says he fell back into crime and drug use in 2012. He moved into a trailer with his girlfriend. As their income dwindled, they started robbing cargo trains for money.

A few months in, they got caught. Miyamura was charged with theft and unauthorized use of a motor vehicle. He was facing 10 years in prison -- his longest jail stay had only ever been six months.

Michael Miyamura was facing 10 years in prison for theft charges
Michael Miyamura was facing 10 years in prison.

When his parole officer told him he might be a candidate for the Justice Reinvestment program, Miyamura pounced on the chance. A year later, in January 2015, he was sentenced to 120 days of increased supervision, 36 months of probation, $16,400 in restitution, a two-hour tour of the Oregon State Penitentiary and 160 hours of community service.

The first four months in the program were the best part, he says, because “you had so much help, you have so much support.” Crucial services such as drug treatment, mentoring and even moral therapy profoundly affected him. Those services, along with increased supervision, including drug tests and frequent check-ins, and genuine support from mentors and parole and probation officers (PPOs), all helped him stay the course.

The PPOs in the program also had more resources in hand to make sure he kept up with his case plan. If Miyamura failed, he’d go to prison – something he says inspired him to stay on the right path.

Miyamura says he was finally ready for stability. But he realized he needed to make a change in himself.

“I’ve had enough of leading a negative life and not believing in myself,” he says. The program “gave me something to believe in: myself.”

After four months, his mindset and outlook changed. Like many in the program, he says his chances would’ve been dismal without it.

Where Justice Reinvestment stands today

Marvin Young, the lead program’s mentor, says programs like these are especially effective because of the relationships they form. As a three-time felon and former drug addict, Young personally relates to his clients.

“We use our experiences. If you ask me about relapsing, if you ask me about cutting off my friends, if you ask me about going into seclusion, I’ll tell them,” Young says. “My job is basically like a lantern on a dark trail. Because I traveled down that dark road and needed a lantern.”

Working with offenders has helped Young carry on with his own continuing path of recovery.

“Everybody always asks me, ‘What do I get out of it?’” he says. “I realize that I’m just one bad decision away from being a client. So for me, as I work with a client, they work with me. They make me believe that I can do more than I think I can do.”

At a Justice Reinvestment summit in February, Gov. Kate Brown made clear her commitment to the program. Lawmakers, looking to balance a budget deficit over the next two years, will decide how much they can spend.

Over the next decade, the program is projected to cut growth in the daily prison population by 870 inmates. Any savings will be invested in local public safety systems as grants and funds, according to the Criminal Justice Commission.

“We have to carry this on, because it is the most effective use of resources that maintains public safety,” says Scott Taylor, director of the Department of Community Justice. “We believe that public safety is created by stabilizing people, changing their criminal behavior….(we) provide supervision but (we) also give you resources and treatment and training and housing and stability.”

For Miyamura, the program changed his life.

“To be who I am today, it did take MCJRP, that understanding that I was a couple months away from going to prison and at any given time I could go back.… That’s not my thing,” he says. “I want to show people, show life, that you can be successful no matter what happens.”

Miyamura’s now been sober for more than three years and works as a private carpenter. Although, Miyamura has another year of probation and still must pay $15,000 in restitution, he says the price is worth it.

“Success only comes from within, nobody can make us be successful in our lives,” he says. “I’m going to lead by example. If you follow in my footsteps you’ll make it.”

Click here to view a short video about another Justice Reinvestment participant.