‘Public Safety Forum’ sheds light on new crime reduction plans

While city and county officials touted their crime-reduction achievements, some feel they didn’t answer the main question: What can you do to further improve or streamline the criminal justice process?

The primary organizer of the event, vice chair of the Centennial Community Association Ron Clemenson, “sets the stage” for the forum – stating concerns about increasing crime in outer East Portland and Gresham.

By Watford Reed and David F. Ashton; photos by David F. Ashton
Increased funding for drug and alcohol treatment programs – backed up by jail beds for those who don’t reform their ways – was the prescription given, as a partial cure for Portland’s crime wave by a dozen Portland and Gresham city and Multnomah County elected and appointed official, to the 120 citizens who gathered at the Parklane Christian Reformed Church on March 11.

The meeting was sponsored by the Centennial and Glenfair neighborhood associations and the East Portland neighborhood office. Moderator David F. Ashton pointed out that what these groups are trying to do is reduce crime and the fear of crime in their neighborhoods.

Participating in the East Portland Public Safety Forum were Eric Sevos, Cascadia Behavioral Services; Multnomah County Commissioners Lonnie Roberts and Lisa Naito; Multnomah County Senior Deputy District Attorney, Chuck French; Multnomah County Circuit Court Judge Edward Jones; Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler (standing); City of Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard; Representing Mayor Tom Potter, City of Portland Public Safety Director Maria Rubio; Portland Police Bureau Chief Rosie Sizer; Gresham City Council President Paul Warr-King; City of Gresham Police Chief Carla Piluso, and Gresham City Counselor David Widmark.

County chair leads off
Ted Wheeler, the Chair of Multnomah County, spoke first, and said a commission of 200 experts had “found a big gap in public safety.”

But Wheeler added, “I must caution you, two things must happen if we want to keep our public safety system whole. First, we need to spend the dollars we have committed to public safety more effectively. And, we need to find additional resources, in terms of dollars, from outside the system.

“You’ve heard talk of a potential public safety levy in the fall [election]. That is an option, but the board has not deliberated on that. We may ask you to support additional public safety resources in the system.

“We’d like to include treatment and addiction services. The levy may include more funding for law-enforcement services.

“We need to break drug addiction so they won’t keep on committing crimes,” Wheeler concluded. “Otherwise, we’ll keep seeing the same people again and again.”

Police chiefs chime in
Part of a strategy for reducing crime, Portland Police Bureau Chief Rosie Sizer commented, “Is that it’s highly desirable, regardless of the offense, for offenders to be kept in jail at least until the next morning, when they see a judge and are given an attorney. This will help end the cycle in which the [the accused] fail to appear for court dates.”

Gresham’s Chief Carla Piluso said that while crime prevention is important, “enforcement was key to reducing the problems we experienced along 162nd Avenue near E. Burnside Street. As we look at our side of the street in Gresham, we’ve seen a huge decrease of crime, according to our statistics.”

Noting that crime has picked up in other areas along the border where Portland meets Gresham, Piluso added, “Displacement of crime is an unintended consequence of strict enforcement. We have to continue working to make sure that that’s not the rule.”

Sevos, Roberts, and Lisa Naito listen to Chuck French, Senior Deputy Multnomah County District Attorney, say that the criminal justice system agencies need to overcome resistance to change policies within their offices. Circuit Judge Edward Jones sits to his right.

Breaking the agency inertia
Senior Deputy Multnomah County District Attorney Chuck French said that nowadays “criminals laugh” when they are given tickets to go to court, and then go away without punishment.

French added, “One of the things Chair Wheeler said is that we need to break the cycle of criminality. To do that, we need to deal with inertia in our agencies. Agencies do certain things because they’ve always done it that way. We need to explore new ways of doing things.”

Known for progressive criminal justice system
Circuit Judge Edward Jones spoke eloquently, and his humorous asides brought several rounds of laughter.

“When you talk about crime, commonly you talk about sentencing,” Jones began. “And when you talk about sentencing, you turn around and look at the judge. It would be nice to think that just a few minutes of my time as a judge will turn a criminal in a good citizen. But the reality is this: Telling people to stop committing crimes is about as effective as telling someone to quit smoking.”

Jones continued, saying the typical offender is a “slow learner”. He added, “Don’t get me wrong: Deterrence does work. Most of us have values or impulse control – at least, sufficient to keep us out of trouble. But there are those who need to be incarcerated.

“Why doesn’t punishment work as well as it should?  The simple answer is that we don’t have enough rational criminals. For many of the people that I see every day, deterrence does not work.”

The judge told of an offender he jailed 11 times for parole violation before the man became clean and sober. “If I had that jail available to throw him into those 11 times, he wouldn’t have finished treatment.

The most substantial problem, Jones said, isn’t the lack of funding. “The biggest issue is courage. We must find the courage to admit our past failures, and commit ourselves to working from the evidence; to do we need to do to solve the problem.”

Addiction treatment seen as the answer
Other panelists suggested that treating drug and alcohol addiction is the key to solving the area’s crime problems.

Leonard said he had read that 71% of crimes are committed by people with drug or alcohol problems.

“We need to focus on why people commit crimes,” he said.  “Otherwise we will only move the crime around.”

Maria Rubio, representing Portland Mayor Tom Potter, called for a “countrywide” drive against drugs is to “fill that gap, close quote, about which chair Wheeler had spoken.”

Taking a different tack, a member of the Gresham City Council, Paul Warr-King, said that he hopes Gresham will hire more police in the fall.

Returning to the concept of rehabilitation, Lisa Naito, Multnomah County Commissioner, warned that treatment centers are “sorely lacking” in the community.  She also said that child abuse is “a significant problem”.

Multnomah County Commissioner Lonnie Roberts forecast that the new East Multnomah Justice Center, planned for Gresham, will help stabilize the area and its mere presence will help reduce crime..

Multnomah County Chair Ted Wheeler suggests that citizens look at how they, individually, are contributing to the reducing of the causes of crime, instead of looking to their elected officials to do so. City of Portland Commissioner Randy Leonard and City of Portland Public Safety Carmen Rubio sit to his right.

Wheeler: Don’t look to elected officials
Ashton noted that it sounded as if all East County’s crime problems have been solved. He asked by a show of hands, how many audience members worry about their safety. Most present raised their hands.

“What can people in this room actually do to work with their elected officials to help reduce crime?” Ashton asked the panel.

Wheeler took the question and responded, “Forget your elected officials. If you rely on elected officials to do everything you need, you can forget about it.”

Peppering the audience with a rapid-fire stream of questions, Wheeler continued, “Instead of a relying on elected people, let me ask you this: How many people here know your neighbors [well]; or know folks in your community who may need help, perhaps older folks who are frail? Watch over them and take care of them? Help keep others from advantage of them? Do you know if they’re suffering from elder abuse?  What about your kids?

“Do support the schools?  I don’t necessarily mean financially, but do you take time to work with kids in the community? There are a lot of kids in this community who are looking for adults ‘on the right side of the law’ to spend time with. Have you thought about being a mentor?”

The Chair concluded, “Look beyond the criminal justice system. Bring back a sense of community responsibility, particularly toward the youth in our community. I believe this will make the biggest impact. And yes, if we put up a public safety levy – vote for it.”

Leonard talks up ‘Program 57’
Commissioner Leonard chimed in, “When we opened 57 jail beds, we quickly concluded that jail time, by itself, will not stop people from committing crime. We also need people to get treatment. The only way we can get people to stop committing crime is to get into treatment and stay in treatment.”

Leonard intoned, “We’ve had a big reduction in crime in Portland, and this is attributable to arresting people, and actually grabbing them by the collar and putting them in the back of a police car and taking downtown and putting them in jail. After they sober up, or withdraw from drugs, look them in the eye and ask ‘Do you like being in jail?’ Most people do not like being in jail.

“Early on we started this program, people in jail would say ‘Sure, I’ll go into treatment.’ If they’d walk in the front door the treatment center and out the back door, we’d pick them up, take them back to jail.  As a result we’ve reduced crime in Portland.

“I’m absolutely convinced we need this two-pronged approach. The most effective dollars we can spend are in drug treatment and alcohol treatment.”

Says anti-poverty program is needed
Representing Mayor Tom Potter, City of Portland Public Safety Carmen Rubio said, “A lot of people in our city and the county are feeling disenfranchised. A lot of people are in poverty; many of them are working two jobs. And that definitely is a link to criminality. I think we need to look at what the root causes are.

“Something we can do, individually or as a community, is reducing poverty in our community.”

While citizens were provided with a comprehensive review of current public safety and criminal justice programs, several left the forum indicating that they felt officials were shifting responsibility for community safety to the community, instead of themselves taking the lead.

D.A. decries lack of flexibility
Senior Assistant District Attorney French spoke up next.

“In the last seven or eight years,” French stated, “Our criminal justice system has lost its flexibility in how to deal with criminals.”

Over the past decade, French shared, many corrections programs have been cut due to budget restraints. Thus, judges’ only options are to put an offender in jail or set them free. “We must restore the ability to craft a type of response for an offender that doesn’t currently exist.”

Detouring petty criminals
Judge Jones spoke up, “Let me add this about preventing a crime in the first place.  We have roughly 1,000 serious Measure 11 crimes in the county every year. About 80% of them have passed through the system [for minor offences] during the year before they were arrested for a serious crime.

“The jails are a screening process; they find people whose lives are in disarray.

“If we can do something with them, as they come through on a minor crime – whether it’s treatment for drugs or alcohol, or getting the job, or whatever it is – we have a significant chance of having many fewer victims the following year.”

Attendees left feeling uncertain
Several individuals lingered after the formal program to speak with officials who were on the panel.

A number of citizens expressed the opinion to us that, although they appreciate their law enforcement officers, they were still concerned about crime issues in their neighborhoods.

© 2008 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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