Skip to Main Content View Text-Only

Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

Phone: 503-823-4682

fax: 503-823-4019

1221 SW 4th Ave. Suite 210, Portland, OR 97204

Criminal Justice in an Age of Reduced Crime

by Commissioner Steve Novick-- Law enforcement is a major responsibility of the City. The Police Bureau is the largest General Fund bureau.

The good news in law enforcement is that crime is down - way down from 20 or 30 years ago. Police Chief Reese told the City Club in April 2011 that crime in Portland was at its lowest since 1967.

But the police still feel as busy as ever, largely because of the number of calls they get about 'quality of life' crime, or disturbances, many of them involving people with addiction or mental health problems. Sometimes, as you know, the interaction between the police and people with mental health and addiction issues has unfortunate results for all involved.

We need to improve the way the Police Bureau deals with people with mental illness and addiction. But ideally, we would reduce the number of times the police are acting as 'first responders' to mental health and addiction problems, by increasing the capacity of the County - which has the expertise, but not enough resources, to do that job. I would love for the City to be able to simply write the County a check - but this year, the City is going to be cutting its own budget substantially.

Governor John Kitzhaber, however, has recently, in his proposed State budget, raised another possibility: that the State could give counties more money for treatment and supervision of released offenders, and rehabilitation programs, if the counties stop increasing the prison population. (It's county officials - the DAs, the parole and probation system, and the judges - that send people to prison.) I think that's a great idea, and have been encouraging legislators to adopt the Governor's vision and encouraging County officials to take that deal. I think if the County had more resources for those services, it would reduce the workload of the Portland Police. (I asked Chief Reese how he would invest new money for prevention, and he immediately said 'treatment on demand.')

Some people argue that the only way to keep crime low is to keep sending more and more people to prison. I certainly recognize that some people need to go to prison, and in fact some people need to go there forever. But I think that in many cases, the public safety benefit of keeping someone in prison for 68 months instead of 56 months is outweighed by the good it would do to invest 12 “prison-months” worth of money in prevention. The way we now budget for public safety doesn't allow local officials to make those choices; local officials have, in effect, an unlimited budget for prisons - the State doesn't charge counties for sending people to prison - but a very limited budget for everything else. The Governor is pointing the way toward a system that would allow for deliberate trade-offs.

And there is, in fact, overwhelming evidence that an increasing prison population is NOT the only key to reducing crime. Yes, it's true that in the past 20 years Oregon has locked up a lot more people and crime has gone down. But as researcher Franklin Zimring demonstrated in his book "The Great American Crime Decline," there has been a dramatic drop in crime throughout North America since 1990 - including Canada, which did not have a prison boom. New York State in recent years has kept its crime rate low while reducing its prison population. And what about Oregon itself when in the late '60's, the last time crime was this low? We had one-seventh the prison population that we do today - 2,000 compared to today's 14,000. Yes, we also had half the general population that we do today - but that means that Oregon in the late '60's had the same crime rate with less than a third of the prison population (per capita).

The truth is, as Zimring says, nobody knows quite why crime has gone down so much throughout North America in the past twenty years. There are societal factors at work that we don't fully understand. But what we do know is inconsistent with the idea that it's all about the prisons.

I realize that since the City only has direct control over the police, it might seem odd for me to be talking about deals between the State and the County about prisons and prevention. But public safety is a multi-governmental enterprise. I think City officials have an obligation to engage in discussions about how to make the whole system work more efficiently and effectively.

I also realize that in the wake of the Clackamas Town Center and Newtown shootings, it may seem jarring to hear about crime being down. It is; overall, the trends and statistics are good. We are safer today than we were twenty years ago. But that does not mean that we should not take steps to reduce the likelihood of such horrific events ... like banning assault rifles and high-capacity magazines. Again, that requires state legislative action; state law, unfortunately, generally prevents the City from adopting its own gun regulations.