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Stretched to the limit - A failure to protect.

Byline: The Register-Guard

On the afternoon of Monday, Feb. 23, 2004, a group of Lane County's top law enforcement officials met with The Register-Guard's editorial board to discuss a fledgling proposal to raise the money needed to shore up the county's deteriorating public safety system.

About 20 minutes into the meeting, the room erupted with buzzing pagers and ringing cell phones. A Springfield mother of three named Paula Ruth Benitez was being held hostage by her ex-husband. Tomas Ortega Benitez should have been serving a jail sentence for violating a court order, but instead was released after two days because of overcrowding in the county jail.

When police stormed the house, they found Ortega-Benitez had killed his ex-wife and then himself. Paula Ruth Benitez became a murder victim, despite taking every available legal precaution: filing charges, obtaining restraining and anti-stalking orders, and even appearing in court on the same day she was killed.

Two and a half years later, there have been modest improvements to the public safety system that failed Benitez. A new risk assessment system does a better job of identifying potentially dangerous prisoners who should not be released prematurely. Child protection, law enforcement and victim assistance groups are working more closely to do a better job of protecting victims and prosecuting offenders.

Yet at the same time, the county's overall capacity to fight adult and juvenile crime has continued to decline, while its population has continued to increase. The county still lacks the police officers, jail beds, prosecutors, parole and probation officers, and treatment and prevention programs that it needs to give county residents the law enforcement protection they expect and deserve.

Since that 2004 editorial board meeting, county officials have continued to struggle for an answer to the county's public safety crisis. After more than two years of planning, deliberations and false starts, all five of the county's politically diverse commissioners agreed to ask voters on Nov. 7 to approve an income tax to generate $23 million annually to make major improvements in the county's public safety system.

The commissioners' proposed solution is not a perfect one; this newspaper has expressed reservations at several junctures along the way. But it's the best and only solution at hand. If approved by voters, the measure would fund a broad array of programs and services that would enable the county to make major inroads against crime, including a virtually unchecked methamphetamine epidemic that is to blame for much of it.

The county has struggled to mount an effective campaign for the measure and may have set back its cause with an ineffective $250,000 public relations campaign. But it's clear that there is a compelling case to be made to voters.

That case is built on the foundation of the county's very real public safety crisis, which was capably and thoroughly outlined in a recent report by the independent Public Safety Coordinating Council (available on-line at www.lcog.org). It depicts a criminal justice system that has been pushed to the limit - and in some areas beyond - and that has not been completely overwhelmed only because of a national decline in serious crime.

The PSCC report also depicts a system that continues to function effectively in some key areas, despite severe constraints in funding and staffing. But it's clear that there is little or no more capacity left for the county to absorb the inevitable cyclical increases in crime - both serious crime, which thankfully continues to run below national levels, and property crime, which is rampant throughout the county. The chart above tells the story.

Many county residents are unaware of the precarious state of their criminal justice system, as evidenced by their rejection of 11 consecutive public safety measures in recent years. In an attempt to better inform them about the county's public safety crisis, The Register-Guard plans to run an occasional series of editorials and graphs aimed at describing, as their title suggests, a system that is "stretched to the limit."

As the election nears, we'll have more to say about the income tax proposal itself and perhaps the county's campaign. For now, however, our focus will be on the county's public safety system - the same system that failed Paula Ruth Benitez on that Monday afternoon two and a half years ago.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:Editorials; County's justice system is near breaking point
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Sep 17, 2006
Words:715
Previous Article:LETTERS IN THE EDITOR'S MAILBAG.
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