Leniency won't clean up downtown

Opinion: It's not hard to see why downtown Seattle is having so many crime problems. How to make things shipshape again.
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Opinion: It's not hard to see why downtown Seattle is having so many crime problems. How to make things shipshape again.

When I started in politics in the early 1990s, crime and public safety were major issues. Concerns about violent crime led to the passage of the “three strikes” and “hard time for armed crime” initiatives. In recent years, however, crime has been a back burner issue as we have been assured that crime rates were dropping.

This month, King County Sheriff John Urquhart may have brought crime back to the forefront of public debate. During a Seattle City Council committee hearing regarding crime in Seattle, the Sheriff said his wife is now afraid to come downtown and meet him after work:

“This is the wife of a sheriff of King County who’s afraid. This is not good,” Urquhart said to the Seattle City Council’s Public Safety Committee.

No, this is not good at all, and it comes on top of other evidence that, no matter what the official crime rate statistics say, Seattle and the region have a public safety problem:

The City Council’s public safety committee spent last week’s meeting discussing why crime has increased. I would submit that the answer is very simple: criminals commit crimes, and today there are several hundred individuals on our streets who would’ve been in jail six years ago.

In 2007, the average daily population in King County’s adult jails was 2,700. Today it is just under 1,800.

Why are King County’s two jails 1/3 empty at a time when elected officials are talking about “burglary epidemics” and crime being “out of control?” Because locking criminals up is expensive. Since the advent of the great recession, our region’s leaders have made decisions based on the need to cut costs, rather than on the need to protect public safety.

The jail population didn’t drop because the lion has lain down with the lamb and human nature has changed. The jail population is down due to several specific public policy decisions made by elected officials:

  • King County’s pre-trial community corrections program of work release, day reporting and electronic home monitoring has grown dramatically. Even prisoners charged with violent crimes are routinely diverted into these money-saving – but non-secure – programs. Earlier this year, a bank robber was sent to work release, and guess what? He robbed a bank. Escapes from community corrections programs are common, but it’s cheaper than keeping inmates in jail.
  • To save money, according to a King County Council staff report, the Legislature directed the State Department of Corrections to dramatically reduce its program of monitoring and arresting those who violate their parole.

If you leave hundreds of people out in the community who, just a few years ago, would have been residents of our two jails, no one should be surprised that the Sheriff’s wife is afraid to walk the streets of Seattle.

Local government revenues have been hammered by the economic downturn. That’s a fact. But public safety is — or should be — the paramount duty for city and county government. King County and the City of Seattle are about to start their fall budget processes. The smarter government thing to do is restore the cuts to criminal justice, arrest and prosecute those who deserve it and once more make public safety a true priority.

A version of this article was originally printed on Smarter Government Washington.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Chris Vance

Chris Vance

Chris Vance, a former Republican party chairman, is a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center.