Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting honest as well as smart about crime in Oregon



 



Guest column, published Monday, October 18, 2010

Getting "smart on crime" are the new code words to tell voters that they are stupid and that the experts, as always, know what's best for them.

At a time when state dollars are at an extreme premium it's clear Oregonians cannot continue to spend money on all the things we have in the past. The question is where can we afford to cut? Well, the one in six state dollars spent doing everything from running the state police to staffing the courts to providing lawyers for those accused of crimes is the last place we should be cutting.

Most -- if not all -- of these public safety services have already been cut to the bone and further. We have fewer state troopers on the road than 30 years ago, and the state provide the counties that run local jails with virtually no financial support of any kind. The Oregonian recently published a jarring story about crimes that simply won't be prosecuted in Oregon's three largest counties because the state keeps deinvesting in public safety.

The conventional wisdom is that we're continuing to sacrifice our children's future on an altar built on revenge, as evidenced by the continued construction of prisons. This view was repeated in the lead commentary in The Sunday Oregonian's Opinion section recently by an economist with no real world experience with the justice system.

To get just a flavor of how the voters -- not the "experts" -- think, look at the interactive online poll The Oregonian provided to ask readers how they would cut costs. Of the 15 alternatives offered by the newspaper, the one that received the very least number of votes was to close a prison. The author of the Sunday commentary says that "[c]oincident with the prison-building boom has been a sharp reduction in crime." That would be like saying it was "coincident" that forcing your child to do his homework occurred at the same time his grades went up.

For those of us who labor in the sometimes gritty fields of Oregon's justice system, we see it the way most voters do. If you incapacitate the less than 1 percent of the population that's preying on the other 99 percent, the rate of victimization will go down.

Nowhere in the Sunday commentary does it mention that public safety is the least funded of the three primary state mandates: education, welfare/public health, and public safety.

Those are the biggest parts of the state general fund and lottery fund, with roughly 52 cents of every dollar of discretionary funds (the ones the Legislature can actually control) going to education, 25 cents to health and welfare and about 17 cents to public safety -- which includes everything from judges to public defenders to prisons, probation officers, the state police and the National Guard.

Now how is Oregon doing on national benchmarks in these three areas?

In both the education and human services parts, we aren't doing so well. Despite valiant efforts by many working in those fields, the fact is we graduate fewer from high school and allow more kids to be abused and slip into poverty. The one benchmark where Oregon has been steadily improving is public safety.

By any standard, there is less crime and fewer victims. So now is the time to stop doing what has been the one bright spot in an otherwise gloomy scorecard?

Oregon used to be among the 10 most dangerous states to live in, and now it's one of the 10 least dangerous. Oregon ranks 30th out of 50 states in incarceration rates, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Yet we are among the most expensive states in per-inmate cost, according to other studies. How is that possible? A close look needs to be taken at the cost of management in the Department of Corrections. The problem isn't with the corrections officers walking the yard without a weapon at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

The claim is sometimes made that we can't afford our relatively modest rate of incarceration. But that ignores the studies from our neighboring state of Washington that showed that for every dollar spent locking up a violent felon -- who make up more than 60 percent of Oregon's relatively small prison population -- the economic savings alone exceed $4 for every $1 spent on incarceration.

It's this sort of "we know what's best for you" arrogance that enrages ordinary Oregonians. If you really believe in democracy, as did the populists who helped invent the initiative system in Oregon a hundred years ago, then Oregon's leaders need to listen to voters, not self-styled experts.

It's time to start getting honest about crime in Oregon before we start re-creating the disaster that Oregon experienced in the 1970s and '80s. Don't fix what isn't broken, and learn from the mistakes and arrogance that made Oregon a dangerous place to live 30 years ago. We elect our judges, sheriffs and district attorneys, so whoever becomes governor should seriously consider inviting some of those 250 elected officials, whose job it is to administer justice at the ground level, to the table to figure out where state money can be saved and where it cannot.

Joshua Marquis is district attorney of Clatsop County, served on the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission and is a member of the American Bar Association Criminal Justice Council.

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