A New Deal on Public Safety
Public safety is one of the primary responsibilities of the City. Traditionally, the Mayor runs the police bureau, and I think that’s a good tradition; as a city commissioner, I wouldn’t ask for that bureau. But what I would do is try to convince the Mayor and my fellow commissioners that the City should join with Multnomah County, and ultimately the State, in reshaping the way we approach public safety. I am convinced that we can reduce crime, reduce our levels of incarceration, and reduce the number of unfortunate interactions between the Police Bureau and some members of the community – by changing the way we budget for public safety.
The public safety system is an odd three-headed animal. Cities hire police officers. Counties operate the jail (which houses suspects awaiting trial, and convicted offenders sentenced to less than a year of incarceration), supervise released offenders, run addiction treatment programs, and provide some mental health services (both to people who have no contact with the public safety system, and to people who do). The State gives the counties some of the money for their programs, and runs the prisons.
We have very smart, competent people in the police bureau, in the county, and in the state public safety system. But because they work in a siloed system – and especially in siloed budgets – they don’t work together as effectively as they could.
Even though the city and county governments are right across the river from each other, there’s not a joint public safety priority-setting or budgeting process. They do sometimes share resources, but generally in the form of (in the parlance of our times) “one-offs”: the city pays for one extra prosecutor for a downtown drug crimes project, or the city and county put one mental health worker and one police officer in a “mobile crisis unit.” The new Crisis Assessment & Treatment Center and the Service Coordination Team are larger-scale examples. But there’s still not a comprehensive strategy.
The result of this siloed approach is a situation where many Portland Police Bureau officers, like Russell Brandt, would tell you that they’re spending too much of their time acting as first responders to mental health crises, and (in Brandt’s words) “I don’t think police are the best people to deal with them.” I think the city and the county need to sit down together and draw up a budget and a plan that ensures that county people are doing the work they’re trained to do, and the police are doing the work they’re trained to do.
This isn’t a new idea. In 2005 and 2006, the Public Strategies Group, the consulting firm where (among other luminaries) former Multnomah County Chair Beverly Stein, prepared a report arguing for a true joint priority-setting and budgeting process: (a) the City and County would join together to set a total dollar figure that they, collectively, are willing to spend on public safety (again, a ‘lump-sum budget’ idea); (b) City and County leadership and community members would identify priorities; (c) city and county departments and bureaus would propose strategies to address those priorities within the context of the global budget; (d) city and county leaders would evaluate the proposals, pick the best ones. That sounds pretty good to me.
If the City of Portland and Multnomah County can do a decent job at joint budgeting for public safety, our next goal should be to draw the State into the partnership, and do a better job of allocating its public safety resources. Many public experts agree that we, as a state (and as a country, for that matter), are spending too much on the most expensive weapon in our crime-fighting arsenal – state prisons. There are some people who need to be put away forever, period. But most offenders are coming out. And researchers say that as far as deterrence is concerned, swiftness and certainty of punishment is more important than severity. If you’ve caught a burglar, and you have a choice between putting him away for five years, or putting him away for three years and then putting an ankle bracelet with a GPS device on it for two years after that, as far as deterrent effect is concerned, option 2 is about as good as option 1. Right now, researchers like UCLA’s Mark Kleiman (author of “When Brute Force Fails: How to have less crime and less punishment”) argue that we’re keeping a lot of people in prison who’d be at low risk to reoffend if they were released with ankle bracelets.
The logical response would be to switch some resources from prisons to mental health services. But the way public safety is organized makes it really hard to do that. The State doesn’t have a choice as to how much it spends on prisons; if a DA is able to get someone sentenced to five years in prison, the State has to hold onto him for five years. And if a DA thinks she can put someone away for five years instead of three, she really has no incentive to choose three – because if she chooses three, she doesn’t get anything for it; there’s no reason for her to believe the saved money will be spent on public safety. She might agree that it would make more sense to send the guy to prison for three years, put an ankle bracelet on him for two, and spend the saved money on treatment for three mentally ill people who have had run-ins with the law, but she doesn’t have that choice. All she has is the choice of three years or five.
But we can redesign the system in a way that gives her that choice. Right now we have a non-system where the State gives the counties a bare-bones budget for treatment and supervision but in effect an unlimited budget for prisons. But we could have a system where the State gives the county a lump sum budget for public safety services –and tells the county, in consultation with the cities in the county, to divide that budget up as it sees fit. When the DAs send people to prison, the costs come out of that lump sum budget. When the county puts an offender through a drug treatment program, or launches a gang outreach program, that comes out of the lump sum budget.
A system like that would give county and city officials, from DAs to community corrections officers to county and city commissioners to police chiefs, both more power and more responsibility than they now have: they’d have the power to sit down together and allocate public safety resources in a rational way, and the responsibility to do it right. I think that’s the way it should be: the local officials have to live with these offenders in their communities, they are best suited to decide how to handle them.
One major caveat is that I wouldn’t put the price of prison for homicides, rapes and other sexual assaults into the ‘lump sum budget’: the cost of prison for those offenses would continue to be ‘free’ to the DA’s office. But for other offenses, the local officials would have a chance to make deliberate tradeoffs between prison, jail, treatment, and intensive supervision.
An important point about this idea is that it’s an idea which will (I think) shift resources away from prisons without changing Measure 11, the mandatory minimum sentences law. Measure 11 would still exist as a tool for prosecutors to use; they’d just have to be conscious of the cost of using it. By the way, prosecutors have huge discretion in how to use Measure 11. The vast majority of criminal cases are plea-bargained; Measure 11 sentences are only truly ‘mandatory’ in the rare cases that go to a jury and result in a guilty verdict.
I realize that transforming the entire safety budget system isn’t something one city commissioner can do: this idea would require buy-in from the Governor, the Legislature, and, of course, County government. And I’ve already run the idea by Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen, who thinks it’s worth pursuing. And the city, as a major piece of the public safety puzzle, has a major interest in making this happen.
I also realize that some local public safety officials will say, “we remember that SB 1145, in the 1990’s, was supposed to put more money into community corrections, and the State didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. What if we make this deal and the State just slashes the public safety budget?” My answer is that, first of all, we’re talking about giving the localities much more control than SB 1145 did, and second, the State is already slashing the public safety budget for everything but prisons – and odds are, as budget pressures increase, they’ll look for ways to let prisoners out, too. Better to give local law enforcement the chance to make deliberate decisions about allocating funding than to wait and see what the Legislature comes up with on its own.
By the way, this ‘global budgeting’ idea is very similar to the way Governor Kitzhaber thinks we need to revamp the health care system. The Governor points out that our disorganized health care system allocates a lot of money to dramatic ‘reactive’ procedures like open-heart surgery, but little to prevention. His solution is to create “coordinated care organizations,” which are responsible for managing their patients’ overall health; in his system, if these organizations do a good enough job at prevention that they avoid having to do too many open-heart surgeries, they’d make more money.
The public safety system is kind of like the health care system: Lots of money for dramatic reactive procedures (long prison terms), not enough for prevention. In my ideal world, the local governments would act as the crime equivalent of the Governor’s coordinated care organizations.