Overburdened system can't keep up with increase in city crime

Jack Carter thought he had all the evidence he needed to bust a car thief.

When the 41-year-old Lake Oswego resident recovered his stolen pickup recently, he found the interior littered with the culprit's personal paraphernalia: burglary tools, stolen mail, newspaper classifieds, stolen compact disc players, a cell phone and dozens of cigarette butts. The kicker was a torn piece of letterhead from Multnomah County that suggested the thief was out on probation for a drug crime.

Carter, an environmental engineer, took the evidence to the Portland Police Bureau's East Precinct, in whose jurisdiction his car was found, in hopes that officers would help find and prosecute the thief.

'I told the police they could probably piece it together,' he says. 'There's probably 2 billion fingerprints all over this.'

He was astounded to have a police sergeant tell him that no matter how much evidence he had, his case probably would never see the light of day.

He isn't the only one whose case is being put on hold.

Mounting cuts in the local criminal justice system are restricting every arm of the law, including the state crime lab in Portland, county district attorney's office, county court, public defender's office, police bureau and jails. The situation will get a lot worse this month as services are more severely curtailed.

In the meantime, property crimes citywide have skyrocketed as they fall to the lower end of the priority list for short-handed police, jails and courts.

Police are sympathetic to crime victims, especially in the current environment.

'I can understand this gentleman's frustration, with his car being stolen, and he thinks he has evidence that will show who stole it,' said East Precinct Detective Sgt. Keloy Krohn about Carter. 'But the reality is, every day I come to work, my list of priorities change. We have to deal with the most serious things, and the equation changes.'

Priorities are getting shuffled everywhere, and it's the lower-level crimes that are getting pushed aside so more violent felony cases such as rape, homicide and robbery can be solved and prosecuted, police say.

The state crime lab has cut a third of its staff and pushed all of its DNA evidence for burglary cases aside to focus on more serious crimes.

On Monday, Multnomah County Circuit Court stopped processing small-claims cases and 'nonperson misdemeanors' Ñ crimes including prostitution, shoplifting, trespassing and vandalism. Offenders will get citations and be asked to pay fines rather than be called to court.

Stemming from a Feb. 4 order by Oregon Chief Justice Wallace Carson Jr., there will be two major changes at the courts.

Beginning this week, courts will be closed to the public on Fridays because 10 percent of the court staff was laid off as a result of budget cuts. The remaining staff members will be furloughed one day a week. Circuit court will conduct normal business hours during the rest of the week.

The other change is that the large majority of felony property-crime prosecutions Ñ auto theft, burglary and forgery Ñ will be deferred because of a $10 million shortfall in indigent defense funding. Since cases involving court-appointed attorneys cannot proceed, suspects will get a notice to appear in court sometime after July 1, when the new fiscal year begins. Cases involving defendants who have hired attorneys will proceed as scheduled.

The public defender's office and American Civil Liberties Union already have filed a lawsuit against the state Legislature, asking for reinstated funding. A number of other challenges are expected.

'It scares the heck out of me,' said Multnomah County Circuit Presiding Judge Dale Koch. 'I'm worried from a professional standpoint. I'm worried Ñ if we do get the money back to process the caseload Ñ about the huge bubble we're going to have. But what scares me more is that I live here.'

Room at the jail

One of the systems trying to find its feet in the tumultuous environment is the Multnomah County jail, which has been releasing inmates early (a process called matrixing) for the past year, due to overcrowding.

When Sheriff Bernie Giusto took office earlier this year, he made a promise to reverse a policy former Sheriff Dan Noelle created to cite Ñ rather than arrest Ñ offenders charged with a Class C felony or lower, such as drug possession of methamphetamine or cocaine, car theft, identity theft, burglary and forgery.

Faced with making $3 million in cuts, he already has laid off dozens of corrections staff and closed the Multnomah County Restitution Center, which saw 800 work-release inmates cycle through yearly.

In order to deal with a shortage of bed space, he said, about 200 people have been matrixed from the jail since Jan. 29. Matrixing has been happening every weekend since then, with 26 released early on the weekend of Feb. 22-23.

This past week, however, has been an anomaly, according to Capt. Linda Yankee, who oversees facility services. The jail did not matrix anyone for the first time in about a year, and the jail actually has seen empty beds: an average of 40 per day from Feb. 24 through Monday.

The empty beds are the result of the decline in overall arrests, Yankee said.

Officers said the practice is largely ineffective and sends the wrong message to criminals.

'You give them a ticket, they get back out, and they do it again,' says Sgt. Doug Justus of North Precinct. 'They know nothing's going to happen to them. É They laugh at you. They absolutely laugh at you. The kids we arrest say, 'So what, there's nothing you can do to me. I'll do this every night.' '

Police said they were surprised to learn that there have been empty beds at the jail.

Giusto agreed that it's a confusing situation. Within about 60 days, he said, he will implement his policy to bring those lower-risk offenders into jail, if only for a few hours. He says that even if there is a mug shot on file, they will be held briefly until being released to make room for more dangerous felons.

'We've also got a lot of confusion now about what's left in the system,' Giusto said. 'We're kind of at a system failure right now and people are unsure about what it is they ought to do, but I think police on the one hand overrestrict the people that they're booking.'

Increases in each neighborhood

In the meantime, Portland residents will continue to see the effects of the stalled criminal justice system. In the past two months, Portland Police Bureau statistics show that property crimes have skyrocketed.

Numbers reflect the average of some specific crime statistics to date, compared with the same time period last year.

• The residential burglary rate has been climbing steadily in every part of the city except Northeast, which saw an average decrease of 26 percent. Burglaries have hit homes within the jurisdiction of the East Precinct (which stretches from Interstate 205 to Gresham) the hardest, with a 76 percent increase. The rate doubled during January, when there were 102 incidents compared with 51 last year.

Police attribute much of the crime in that area to methamphetamine users, who typically commit property crimes near where they live to pay for their drugs.

• Shoplifting has soared in Southeast Portland, with a rate 113 percent higher than at the same time last year. The greatest jump occurred the first week in January, when there were 19 shoplifting incidents compared with four last year.

• Northeast Portland is dealing with a rising auto-theft rate (23 percent) at the same time that most other property crimes in the area have gone down.

• North Portland is experiencing a huge increase in thefts from cars (115 percent), with the highest rate being the first week of January, when 11 incidents were reported, compared with two last year.

Some of the increase is left over from the holiday season, when criminals are more desperate for cash, police say. But much of it, they say, is likely the same people committing crimes over and over in the midst of the current criminal-justice system crisis.

'If they're going to give people a court date in July or August,' said Sgt. Scott Johnson of Northeast Precinct, 'that's just telling people the state does not take this seriously, and I'll go out and re-offend.'

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