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Shawn Vestal: Career criminals plague city

The cops call them “ropes,” and they are tying themselves into knots – big, expensive, dangerous knots – throughout the community.

Repeat offenders, career criminals, call them what you want. A huge proportion of crime is committed by a tiny number of people whose entire lives orbit the criminal justice system. Federal estimates suggest that 6 percent of criminals commit 70 percent of crimes; half the people released from prisons are back within three years.

Last week’s extraordinary shooting and police chase shined a bright light on that wholly ordinary reality. Charles Wallace, the man who shot two deputies and then himself, had a rap sheet longer than a Russian novel. The judge who last let him out of jail to attend drug treatment has taken a lot of heat. But the truth is, people like Wallace are revolving in and out of jail constantly.

It’s not a ton of people. But they’re behind a ton of crime.

“That’s their career,” Spokane police Maj. Frank Scalise told me. “Just like you are a journalist and I am a police officer, they are thieves.”

The Spokane Police Department has a repeat offender program – the origin of the nickname “ropes” – that identifies around 50 local criminals at a time for added attention and emphasis. To be designated as a rope, an offender must rack up at least three felonies and be “active” in some contact with police over the past six months. Most ropes have more convictions.

Police then use the designation to drive priorities when choosing cases to pursue; with crime outpacing resources, it’s a way to focus on areas that have maximum impact, Scalise said.

“You go after the guy who did 20 (crimes), not the guy who did two,” he said.

A lot of us underestimate the degree to which there is a criminal class and culture. When the occasional repeat offender makes the news, it tends to get people riled up. Eddie Ray Hall has become a famous local cliché – the guy who’s constantly in jail. The extreme case. The inept career criminal.

But the truth is that ropes are a more or less constant battle for the community, not comical outliers. They cost us a ton of money, they hurt people and property, and every time a cop runs across one they have to wonder if it won’t be the time that things go seriously haywire.

Scalise pulled the records of three typical criminals currently identified as repeat offenders under the SPD’s program.

One was a 25-year-old woman. She has 12 convictions. She’s been arrested 21 times. Police have officially “contacted” her 254 times.

One was a 34-year-old man. He has 22 convictions – every drug and property crime under the sun. He’s been contacted by police 329 times.

The third example was a 24-year-old man. Thirteen convictions, nine arrests, 95 police contacts.

“These are run of the mill” repeat offenders, Scalise said. “There are 47 or so more where they came from.”

This more or less permanent criminal class is a huge problem from any perspective. We cannot jail away the problem – we couldn’t afford it even if it worked. We could stop spending time and money on drug offenses, but that doesn’t do anything about addiction – which underlies so much property crime. Cutting social services from mental health care to public health nurses makes it easier for people to exist in a world that is entirely outside the expectations and norms of the culture.

Around 1 in 100 American adults is now behind bars, according to a 2010 congressional report on a national conference on recidivism. The United States has 5 percent of the world’s population and 23 percent of its prisoners. Counting those on probation and parole, 1 of every 32 Americans is under “some form of correctional control.”

This boom has a cost. One in every 14 discretionary dollars in state budgets goes to corrections. In the past 20 years, corrections spending has quadrupled.

The report, “The National Summit on Justice Reinvestment and Public Safety,” shines a light on various correctional alternatives being tried around the country. Many of them focus on community-based solutions – less prison and more social-service efforts to connect offenders to community, family and responsibility. Among the solutions showing effectiveness, the report says, are identifying and tracking repeat offenders, strengthening community supervision and concentrating services in areas where offenders live.

The report highlights a comparison between the differing approaches in Florida and New York. Between 2000 and 2007, both states changed their incarceration rates. Florida’s went up 16 percent; New York’s went down 16 percent, as it shifted toward community-oriented solutions.

Both saw reductions in crime, but New York’s was twice that of Florida.

There is a larger debate to be had about the way we dispense justice – a debate that is particularly timely as we decide whether we ought to spend more money on a jail in Spokane. It’s a terrifically complex problem, and we don’t do a thing toward addressing it if all we do is mock “bleeding heart” judges – or if we pretend that all criminals can be gently eased toward a better life.

Meanwhile, from the perspective of Scalise and the community’s law enforcement officers, it’s a game of “whack-a-mole.” And there are more moles than hammers.

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

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