Spokane has risen to the top of a cringe-inducing category: highest crime rate among the state’s largest cities. The rate hasn’t been this high since 1988. Next year, the city may drop in the rankings but for a disquieting reason: the reporting of crimes (as opposed to the incidences) may fall off because the police stopped the practice of taking calls on nonemergency crimes 24 hours a day.
For every reason that might explain the city’s negative ascent, questions arise.
City budget cuts forced the layoff of officers and ended some crime prevention programs.
Were the right crime-fighting cuts made? Are resources being used wisely? Violent crime continues to drop as property crimes rise. Can resources be shifted accordingly? Are there other areas of government that can pick up the crime-prevention programs? Can private organizations and business groups pool resources to educate the public on issues such as the proliferation of methamphetamine use. Is the underfunding of other social services, such as mental health treatment, costing the community more in the long run?
Spokane County’s criminal justice system is overwhelmed. It needs more jail space, prosecutors and public defenders. Its disparate parts need to be better coordinated.
Why has the funding shortfall been allowed to reach what some would call emergency levels? Why is the county’s justice system such a jumble of jurisdictions? Would a consolidated approach solve some of the problems? What are other communities doing that we aren’t?
The good news is that these questions – and more – are being hashed out by the key players. Spokane County commissioners convened a summit last week that included law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, judges and others.
They won’t be able to magically produce the amount of money needed to shore up the system, but they can establish priorities. One encouraging development is an effort to collect $86 million in unpaid fees and restitution. Currently many felons ignore their financial obligations because they know enforcement isn’t likely. Law enforcement needs to shift some resources to help with these collections on behalf of both crime victims and taxpayers.
It may take years to turn the crime problem around, but leaders need to stay vigilant because a high crime rate can drag an entire community down. And we don’t just mean government leaders. A reputation as a high-crime city can cripple established businesses and economic development efforts.
Though many questions need answers, some things are already clear. The problem is multifaceted and everyone has a stake in finding solutions.
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