Friday, August 5, 2005

Public Safety Last?

by Josh Marquis
printed in The Oregonian, August 5, 2005

Despite claiming that public safety is job one, many lawmakers are avoiding their responsibility to the state's citizens to maintain the most basic public safety infrastructure.

Despite claiming that public safety is job one, many Oregon lawmakers are avoiding their responsibility to the state's citizens to maintain the most basic public safety infrastructure.

While the jail bed conflict in Multnomah County has drawn much attention, the problem is not limited to Portland. County sheriffs across Oregon are increasingly confronted with a lack of jail beds or an inability to staff existing facilities. The new Clackamas County sheriff is facing a court order as the result of financially mandated bed closures. Clatsop County's sheriff has announced he will quit trying to jam 70 prisoners into a facility built for 29. To date, Douglas, Linn and Curry counties have all backed out of participation in the state's program that supposedly funds local community corrections programs. And The Oregonian recently urged Multnomah County to consider doing the same.

All this is occurring in the face of a methamphetamine epidemic that has Oregon leading the nation in emergency room admissions for the drug that devastates lives and families. Almost everyone agrees that this epidemic needs serious attention. It is a particularly vicious and dangerous drug, and addicts rarely volunteer for treatment. But who exactly is going to deal with the epidemic if we keep slashing funding for state police, district attorneys and county sheriffs? Oregon's sheriffs have been cut so much that most of their new hires are "matrix" workers whose job it is to follow a formula to determine who to let out of jail first.

Despite these realities, urban legend still suggests that Oregon is wasting money needed for second-graders by uselessly locking up harmless nonviolent offenders. The truth is that more than 70 percent of convicted felons never go to prison -- they receive probation and must be supervised locally.

For too many decades, Oregon was stupid on crime. For decades we built no new prisons and endured a rise in crime that matched most other states. But since voters approved Measure 11 and other truth-in-sentencing reforms, violent crime has dropped more in Oregon than in any other state in the nation.

Instead of watching lawmakers stay the course, however, law enforcement officials have found themselves in an uphill battle, struggling with some state, county and city lawmakers to fund government's No. 1 responsibility -- public safety. To be clear, there have been genuine heroes in the Legislature, Democrats and Republicans: Sens. Betsy Johnson and Ted Ferrioli, Reps. Jeff Barker and Andy Olson.

But all too often lawmakers at both the state and local levels have given little more than lip service to keeping dangerous criminals locked up. As Vinita Howard said on this page in her July 27 commentary ("Who wins when legislators drive DUII bills into the ditch?"), one group that did no formal lobbying fared very well this session -- drunken drivers -- while the state police were forced to sacrifice yet more troopers for much-needed detectives.

Make no mistake: Oregon's prisons aren't full of doe-eyed first-time joy riders. More than 60 percent are in for violent offenses. But county jails and local probation are just as critical a part of the corrections continuum.

Let's get smart in our discussions about funding public safety. Accountability has been working for Oregon, but it comes with a price tag -- and it's worth every dime, both in reducing crime and reducing blood and tears.