July 24, 2013 in City

Spokane needs better tack with repeat offenders

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Shawn Vestal
(Full-size photo)

On Sunday, police arrested Christopher Cannata on suspicion of car theft.

It was the first time Cannata had been arrested since May. Which was the first time he’d been arrested since March. Which was the first time he’d been arrested since February.

In all, Cannata, 41, was arrested or cited by police six times since September.

Which was when he was released from prison.

For car theft.

Cannata’s most recent arrest, in connection with a theft from March, was part of a very good week for the Spokane Police Department, in terms of arresting car thieves. Seventeen people were arrested between July 14 and 21 on suspicion of car theft or possession of a stolen vehicle. It was, police officials say, a victory for the SPD’s new approach to using crime stats and data analysis to respond quickly to crime “hot spots.”

Tucked into those 17 arrests, however, is all the evidence you need to conclude that there’s much more to the problem than simply arresting people. Because a lot of times, the cops are arresting the same people again and again.

A few people commit most crimes. “Prolific offender” is a common law enforcement term for these folks. “Rope” is another, based on the acronym from repeat offender program. Chief Frank Straub called them “problem children.”

“Somewhere between 5 and 6 percent (of the population) accounts for 50 to 60 percent of crimes,” said Monique Cotton, SPD spokeswoman. “When some of these prolific offenders are arrested and in jail, we do see our numbers go down.”

Cannata, Straub said, is a “very, very prolific offender.” He has 29 felony convictions, starting in 1991. His convictions include burglary, theft, unlawful possession of a firearm, possession of stolen property and more. He has blamed his problems on drug addiction. Years ago – back in 2005, when he had a mere 19 convictions – a judge called his record “appalling.”

He’s an extreme case, for sure. But he’s not alone.

Most of those arrested last week for car theft had been arrested for the same thing more than once in the past 12 months, Cotton said. Five had been arrested five times, each, in the previous year. One of them – Cannata – had six arrests. One had nine.

One has 11.

“This isn’t somebody who gets up in the morning and says, ‘I’m going to commit my first crime and go steal a vehicle,’ ” Straub said. “These are people who are doing this for a living.”

And for those folks, an arrest – in and of itself – might be just a part of doing business.

“It’s clearly not much of a disincentive,” Straub said.

The car theft problem is exposing some of our deeper, larger problems. Straub has been admirably forthright in saying that he “owns” the city’s crime problem, and he’s taking some steps that show early promise in reducing crime. The 17 arrests last week may be a sign of that.

But he cannot own it alone. Straub said it will take strategies and cooperation throughout the system – jails, courts, social services – to try to come to grips with the problem children. He said those conversations are underway; a task force of city and county officials has been meeting to discuss ways to improve the justice system.

A key idea – and one that’s ripe for quick adoption here – is the community court concept, Straub said. Like drug courts and other innovative justice approaches, a community court is a “problem-solving court” that sanctions chronic low-level criminals while trying to get them help for whatever underlying problems might be contributing to their problems, whether it’s drugs or homelessness.

An analysis by Smart Justice Spokane, a group that advocates for a wide range of systematic reforms in the justice system, argues that community courts save money and reduce recidivism; it cites research showing that a model program in Seattle had a dramatic impact. A group of chronic offenders who went through Seattle Community Court program committed fewer repeat felonies than those who went through the regular court system.

Smart Justice Spokane is pushing a wide range of such reforms – based on a “lens” that focuses on looking for more effective and efficient ways to turn offenders away from crime, rather than simply locking them up and waiting for their inevitable release.

Because, unless we radically change our justice system, most people who commit crimes will not rot in jail; they will emerge, and rejoin us out here in the community.

If they’re rotting, out here is where it happens.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or shawnv@ spokesman.com. Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.


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