Violent crime rises here despite trends elsewhere toward a significant drop.
Lane County is bucking state and national trends toward lower violent crime rates, according to the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission's first-ever report on a local jurisdiction.
The Legislature created the commission in 1995 as an impartial forum for criminal justice issues statewide. It released a report this month showing that Lane County's rate of "person crimes," such as murder, rape, assault and kidnapping, among others, rose by 17 percent while Oregon's rate steadily declined by 5.5 percent over a three-year period ending in 2007.
The report also found that violent crime increased in Eugene by 4.1 percent in the first six months of 2008 over the first six months of 2007. During the same period, violent crime declined by 9.9 percent in Salem and 6.6 percent in Portland, though both cities still have higher crime rates than here.
Likewise, Lane County property crime increased by 2.4 percent in the first half of 2008 over the first half of 2007, even as it fell 14.1 percent in Salem and 8.4 percent in Portland.
The state panel conducted the study because of perceptions here that Lane County was an exception to improved public safety nationally and statewide, said Craig Prins, the commission's executive director.
As an example, Prins recalled the skepticism expressed by state Rep. Nancy Nathanson of Eugene after he presented data on the state's falling crime rate to the House Ways and Means Committee.
"I said, `We've got good news - crime is going down,' and she looked at me funny and said, `Really,'" he recounted. "We, at the state level, like to help separate fact from myth, so we decided to check to see if (Lane County) was really that different from the other counties."
The commission's findings, he said, confirmed "that there is something going on, that Eugene is going in the opposite direction of Portland and Salem, that the resource (concerns) are real there."
Despite this, Lane County's rate of such crimes remained below that of some Oregon counties, the report found. Even after trending downward, Multnomah and Marion counties still topped Lane County's 2007 person crimes rate of 108.3 per 10,000 residents, with rates of 160.5 and 131.7, respectively.
Still, 2007 marked the first year that Lane County's person crime rate exceeded the state's rate, Lane County District Attorney Alex Gardner noted.
And, though Eugene and Salem are similar in size, Gardner said, other differences have historically driven a higher crime rate there.
"Generally speaking, Marion County (Salem) has had significantly greater crime rates, largely because there is a sustained gang problem in the area, and the large prison facilities have created centers of violence and magnets for criminal behavior, for a variety of reasons," he said. "What is both significant and unfortunate is the fact that our area has been rapidly closing the gap with Salem, though we don't have the same catalysts for crime."
He pointed as explanation to local budget cuts eliminating 18 of 21 Lane County Sheriff's Office detectives and 10 of 11 criminal investigators in the district attorney's office.
Gardner also warned that the local crime rate is worse than reported in the study, since it mostly examined data collected before a funding crisis forced Lane County to close more than 200 of its jail beds last July due to lack of sheriff's office staff. The result has been a "spike" in crime due to the county's inability to hold hundreds of accused defendants and convicted offenders, Gardner said.
Commission researcher Susan Schwartz echoed Gardner's disclaimer that the picture may have changed, calling the study "a snapshot" of the most current data assembled and verified by state and FBI statisticians. Much of that data came before the economic recession deepened and Lane County's shrinking jail capacity forced the early release of nearly 4,000 inmates since July 2008.
The report did examine 2008 statistics for jail beds and inmates released for lack of beds before going to trial or completing their sentences. It found that Lane County had the lowest rate of jail beds in Oregon at 0.6 beds per 1,000 residents compared to a statewide average of 1.8 per 1,000. It also found that Lane County released more inmates in 2008 for lack of capacity than any of the other 25 counties reporting such releases.
Local officials, from the jail captain to state court judges, have warned that the such releases have endangered the public, made a mockery of local sentences and boosted the number of defendants who fail to show up for court dates.
Prins and Schwartz drew no conclusions about the adequacy of Lane County's criminal justice system. "Our job is to provide the objective data and not to interject ourselves," Prins said.
"Nonetheless," Schwartz wrote in her report summary, "there is broad consensus that swift and certain sanctions are effective at deterring crime and reducing recidivism."
Therefore, she said, it would not be surprising to see higher crime rates in a justice system lacking the resources to provide such sanctions. Among the study's other findings:
In 2008, Lane County had the second lowest rate of prosecutors to population among Oregon's counties.
In 2007, Lane County had the second lowest rate of sworn officers per population, and the highest ratio of major offense to officer.
Lane County contributes a disproportionately high number of new intakes to state prisons. That may reflect Lane County's lowest-in-the-state jail bed capacity, Prins and Schwartz said. Local prosecutors may feel pressure to hold out for state prison terms - where offenders serve at least 80 percent of their sentences - over local jail time - where they may serve only a fraction of their sentences - Prins said.
The lack of local jail beds also may increase state incarceration rates because there is no capacity for "swift and certain sanction in the community," Schwartz said.
"That's especially true when you look at your problem-solving courts, such as drug court," she said. "They depend on being able to tell people, `You blow your drug test for the second time and you do a weekend in jail. That can save incarceration costs down the road, if it helps them stop their criminal behavior and deal with their addictions."