Chief expects crime to rise
Eugene officials say reductions in jail space from a loss of federal funds will affect law enforcement efforts
BY EDWARD RUSSO
Appeared in print: Friday, Feb. 10, 2012, page A1
Eugene Police Chief Pete Kerns doesn’t need a crystal ball to see the future.
Crime will probably increase in the city after Lane County closes up to half the beds in the county jail and eliminates parole and probation supervision for misdemeanor offenders, Kerns said Thursday.
“It’s pretty predictable that by not having people supervised by parole and probation, and by having fewer jail beds and less accountability, that we will see crime go up,” he said.
Kerns’ comments were among the reactions of local officials to the plans by Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner to soon sharply reduce jail staffing, forcing the closure of half the beds in the county jail, because of the expected loss of federal timber payments. The sheriff said he will also cut his patrol staff from 16 to five, and eliminate parole and probation supervision for hundreds of misdemeanor offenders.
Communities throughout Lane County rely on the county jail to house serious offenders and people awaiting trial. The further erosion of the county’s long-weakened public safety structure leaves municipal leaders, many of them with their own budget problems, wondering how to respond.
“We’ll continue to manage our resources carefully and work strategically with our partners in the community,” said Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy. “But I don’t know what we will do about the reality of having very few jail beds. I’m sure it will be part of our budget discussions.”
Springfield City Manager Gino Grimaldi said the city does not have extra money to help the county avoid layoffs of jail employees.
“We’re obviously in a difficult financial situation ourselves,” he said. “Looking at next year’s budget, we are likely going to be a smaller organization than we are today.”
Eugene City Councilor George Poling said county and city leaders should discuss asking voters to approve a tax for public safety, an often-tried but consistently defeated concept.
“Eventually the criminals are going to take over,” said Poling, a retired Lane County Sheriff’s Office patrol sergeant. “There is no accountability for them committing crimes. There is no law enforcement out there to arrest them. There is nobody to prosecute them. And there is no way to incarcerate them because of the lack of jail beds.”
The announced closures would leave about 130 jail beds to house Lane County offenders. Another 100 beds are used by federal law enforcement under a separate contract. The city also rents county jail beds for crimes prosecuted in Eugene’s Municipal Court. Springfield, meanwhile, has a large new jail, but it’s only certified to hold misdemeanor offenders, not the felons or alleged felons who make up much of the Lane County Jail population.
Kerns based his prediction for rising crime on the recent past. Twice during the past few years, burglaries and other property crimes rose after the county’s previous decisions to cut jail staff and eliminate jail beds.
In 2008-2009, property crime increased 24 percent after 84 beds were closed because of budget pressures caused by timber-payment uncertainty.
After the beds were reopened in 2009, property crime dropped 26 percent, Kerns said.
Since last July, after budget pressures again led Turner to cut jail staff and close 84 jail beds, Kerns said property and violent crimes have “steadily gone up, though not at the same precipitous rate as before.”
The Eugene City Council and the police department in recent years have tried to deal with the county’s reduced ability to hold criminals, he said.
To ensure that people convicted of misdemeanors or violations in Eugene’s Municipal Court serve time for their offenses — including theft, drunken driving and assault — the city leases beds in the Lane County and Springfield jails.
A few years ago, the city rented 15 beds in the Lane County Jail for that purpose, but with the county’s decreasing ability to hold offenders, the city increased the number of beds it rents so it now has a total of 35 — 20 in the county jail and 15 in the Springfield jail.
Eugene police also are using improved crime tracking that puts more officers in neighborhoods where a series of crimes have occurred, Kerns said.
Police also pitch crime prevention ideas to residents in neighborhoods hit hard by car break-ins and burglaries, he said.
Officers will continue urging residents to be vigilant about preventing crime, Kerns said. He said he and other authorities will “continue to look for ways to hold offenders accountable, and to identify the most prolific offenders and keep them off the streets.”
Poling, the councilor from northeast Eugene, said the leaders of every Lane County city should meet with county commissioners to develop a strategy to increase funding for the county’s entire public safety system.
“We need to include parole and probation, youth services and the district attorneys’ office because there is more to public safety than the jail and sheriff’s patrols,” he said.
Poling acknowledged that Lane County voters had rejected in a row 14 previous tax proposals for public safety.
However, Poling said, the problem has now become so severe in Lane and other counties that have relied on federal forest payments that voters may be receptive to a tax measure.
Clackamas County, which includes Oregon City, has a voter-approved serial levy for public safety, he said. And Lane County used to have a public safety serial levy as recently as the late 1990s, Poling said.
A property-tax based levy could be structured so that rural residents, who rely on sheriff’s patrols, would pay more than city residents who are served by police departments, Poling said.
However, city residents would contribute to support the jail, parole and probation and juvenile justice services, he said.
“It’s going to take the citizens of each individual county to come up with some kind of funding for their public safety network,” Poling said.