Saturday, July 6, 2013

Frontier justice thrives in Oregon, in the face of law enforcement budget cuts

Micropolitan Josephine County, Oregon, population 82,713, is experiencing a fiscal crisis that has devastated, among other things, the county's law enforcement and jail budgets.  NPR reported on the matter a few months ago here, leading to this blog post.  Now, Kirk Johnson reports for the New York Times today from Josephine County under the headline, "In Oregon, A Demand for Safety, but Not on Their Dime."

Johnson's report starts in the county seat, Grants Pass, population 34,800, where burglaries up last year nearly 70%, theft cases up about 80%.   Many attribute the crime surge to the "awareness by criminals that their actions are increasingly without consequences in [the] cash-starved Josephine County, where the jail the city depends on is mostly closed for lack of money."  Johnson quotes Sgt. Todd Moran of the Grants Pass Police, "It's just broken," referring to the need for more money for the county's criminal justice infrastructure, including prosecutors.

Then Johnson goes an hour south of Grants Pass, to a more rural part of the county, where a group of volunteers who call themselves Citizens Against Crime have been patrolling "the back roads of the county," since last summer, when the sheriff's office budget and staff were gutted.  For the fiscal year that started July 1, the Josephine County Sheriff's Office is down to one deputy to respond to general calls from the rest of the county.  Just a few years ago, the Office employed 22 deputies.  Meanwhile, applications to carry a concealed weapon were up 49% last year.

Among those carrying weapons are Sam Nichols and Glenn Woodbury who are among the volunteers with Citizens Against Crime, believe the county's "financial troubles are in fact strengthening the community and that citizen crime patrols like theirs are proving that money — meaning higher taxes — is not the solution." They say that with local residents on watch, crime rates have fallen to near zero.  

This particular line from Johnson's story suggests the rural or quasi-rural nature of the area where Nichols and Woodbury patrol: "... Woodbury in the passenger seat shining a spotlight into the woods and winding dark driveways."  

Referencing the ongoing national debate over crime, taxes, and--more recently--how the Trayvon Martin case causes us to inquire about the taking of law into the hands of private citizens, Johnson observes that the debate in places like Josephine County "goes much deeper, to the question of what government is for and how community is to be defined."  That's Johnson's segue into the economic disaster that is Josephine County and just how great the struggle is for many folks:  
At grocery stores in Grants Pass, stopping and citing shoplifters — sometimes with whole carts of beer or food in tow — have become part of the daily law enforcement routine. 
“I hold my breath, every day, for everything,” said Sheriff Gil Gilbertson.

Johnson then goes into a detailed history of why Josephine County is in this fiscal pickle, which implicates the federal government, federally held lands, and whether and how much timber revenue feds share with local governments. Oh, and it also implicates residents' willingness or lack thereof to tax themselves.  County residents have voted multiple times, most recently in May, against raising their property taxes to help reduce the county's shortfall.  Johnson quotes rural economist Bruce Weber of Oregon State, who calls what is happening in Josephine County "a slow-motion disaster."  The full story is well worth a read for its balanced depiction and lucid and compassionate explanation.

Here's a related post from a few years ago, and a related story out of Coos County, which is contiguous to Josephine County.

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