Stats tell real crime story.
Local crime rates have posed a fascinating paradox in recent years, as crime statistics have improved at the same time that Lane County's criminal justice system was starved for resources.
Several years ago, the intergovernmental Public Safety Coordinating Council issued a report that examined this paradox. An intriguing picture emerged in which long-term national and regional declines in crime masked the effects of a steady erosion of Lane County's criminal justice system.
Partly as a result of this paradox, local voters were skeptical that the criminal justice system was in crisis, and they rejected the county's efforts to fund threadbare public safety programs with a county income tax.
A December 2006 editorial in The Register-Guard predicted that this paradox would not last. "Lane County residents can't count on their luck holding forever," it said. "One day, the crime rate will stop falling, or even rebound. A system that has been struggling to respond to a declining number of crimes will then be overwhelmed by the need to arrest, jail, try and supervise more criminals."
That day may have arrived.
The FBI released statistics Monday showing that both violent and property crime in the Eugene-Springfield area surged in nearly every category in 2008. That's not particularly surprising. Crime statistics ebb and flow. What's revealing is that the statewide numbers dropped sharply during the same period.
The difference last year between local crime trends and the rest of the state was profound.
In Eugene, the number of violent crimes, such as murder and rape, rose 14 percent per 100,000 people, compared with an 11 percent decline statewide. Property crimes, ranging from burglary to car theft, rose 23 percent locally, while the state had a 7 percent decrease. Similar increases were reported in Springfield, where crime numbers rose in all categories but one - aggravated assault, which saw a negligible decline.
The statistics suggest that the erosion of the county's criminal justice system has reached a tipping point. The damage has become so severe that it no longer can be masked by regional or national statistical trends. Eugene, Springfield and the rest of Lane County now have crime statistics that more accurately reflect the public safety system's lack of resources and capacity.
Eugene's large increases in both property and violent crime contrasted sharply with Portland, which experienced declines of 6.9 percent in violent crime and 7.4 percent in property crime. In Salem, violent crime dropped by 1.9 percent and property crime fell by 3.1 percent.
While public attention has focused largely on Lane County's inadequate corrections capacity and the premature releases of offenders, all facets of the local criminal justice system are underfunded and overextended.
A recent Oregon Criminal Justice System study documented a severe shortage of police; prosecution; drug and alcohol treatment; mental health, parole and probation, and juvenile services; as well as corrections.
Consider that in 2007 there were just 1.2 law enforcement officers in Lane County for every 1,000 people, a number that ranks second lowest in the state. By contrast, Multnomah County has 2.0 officers for every 1,000 people. Eugene has 1.25 officers per 1,000 - roughly half the national average of 2.5 per 1,000.
The county's public safety crisis has done more than fuel increasing crime rates. Lane County had the highest number of traffic fatalities of any county in the state last year, and only 10 deputies patrol the county's sprawling network of roads.
The new crime statistics should add a sense of urgency to plans by Lane County Sheriff Russ Burger and District Attorney Alex Gardner to form a citizens task force to explore options that may include formation of a new countywide public safety district.
It's a daunting prospect in a county where voters have rejected at least a dozen consecutive county public safety measures. But it might be less difficult now that crime statistics are starting to reflect the crumbling condition of the county's criminal justice system.
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|Publication:||The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)|
|Date:||Sep 18, 2009|
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