Opinion: Portland's progressive approach hinders public safety
Perhaps the most fundamental role of government, historically, has been to protect citizens from the few among us who endanger public welfare by violating society's laws. Today there is a robust debate on how to best accomplish that goal.
Traditional public safety policy is structured to deter others from violating society's laws by actually enforcing them. Progressive reformers, by contrast, believe addressing the needs of offenders is the best way to prevent them from repeating their criminal conduct.
For many years, Multnomah County leadership has aggressively adopted the progressive approach to public safety, and thus turned itself into a classic test case for the effectiveness of those policies. And today it is vitally important for Oregonians to understand the public safety outcomes of Multnomah County's justice policies, because the same leadership that brought those policies to Portland now wants to impose them on the rest of the state.
Today in Salem, Democratic leadership is conducting an aggressive and well-oiled campaign to shutter county jail beds, to cease arresting and prosecuting "minor" offenders, to eliminate significant sentences for violent offenders, and to ensure that criminal defendants remain free in the local community while awaiting trial.
Here's what happened when Multnomah County did all those things.
• During the past 15 years, two-thirds of Multnomah County's jail beds were eliminated, and police strength was cut to 1.34 officers per 1,000 residents, about the lowest of any major American city, one-third of the police presence in large cities like New York. The average Portland police officer now investigates a crushing caseload of 42.8 major felony cases each year, while New York City officers handle 4.7 major felonies each year.
• Between 2011 and 2019, violent crime in Portland increased by 28% and property crime by 15%. Auto theft doubled. But while crime was surging for those offenses, the county district attorney's office slashed felony prosecutions by 38% and misdemeanor prosecutions by 45%. Enforcement went down, crime went up.
There's certainly a lesson to be learned there.
Despite rising crime in Multnomah County, plea-bargained prison sentences for major property offenders and drug dealers were reduced by 55%, under the terms of a state program that funnels $8 million to Multnomah County each biennium to voluntarily keep felony offenders out of prison.
For those numerous convicted felons who avoid prison and remain in the community on probation, Multnomah County lobbied state corrections administrators for a special and more lenient "sanctioning grid" for felony probation violations than is used for violators in other counties.
The aftermath of these policies has been grim and tragic. In 2020, Portland registered its most homicides in almost 30 years, with killings tripling in just four years. Gun violence events have tripled in only two years. The last half of 2020 has been the bloodiest six months in Portland history.
Despite high education levels and low poverty rates, Portland has managed to become a top-10 city for property criminals, registering two-and-a-half times the national rate of property crime, with the third highest auto theft rate of any large city in the nation.
And criminal probationers in Multnomah County obviously got the message that authorities won't really require them to comply with the conditions of their probation. Of Oregon's 36 county probations departments, Multnomah County probationers rank dead last in employment, 23rd in paying restitution to victims, 22nd in completing court ordered community service, and 32nd in participating in treatment. When you don't demand compliance, you won't get it.
These are the public safety policies on the table in Salem today. The rest of Oregon must decide how far down this road they want to follow Portland.
James L. Buchal is a Portland lawyer, who has recently retired from his role as chairman of the Multnomah County Republican Party.
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