Data suggest an uptick in 2014 crime occurrences, but story still unfolding

Photo Credit: FILE - A St. Helens police cruiser helps establish a perimeter around the Columbia County Courthouse during a bomb scare in early May. Some law enforcement officials say jail funding uncertainty caused crime in the county to trend upward for first half of year.In the wake of a recent burglary spree in St. Helens, law enforcement officials say crime rates may not decline for a few months.

In Columbia County, non-violent crime peaks during summer months.

St. Helens Police and Columbia County sheriff’s deputies continue to nab suspects connected to the burglaries earlier this summer. While recent arrests represent a huge break in the cases, St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss and District Attorney Steve Atchison warn that property crimes could remain high until summer passes.

“Every year, our activity level peaks in July and August,” Moss said, noting more people are out on the roads during the summer months and more people are away from their homes. “We’ve had a really busy summer. The burglaries are only just one part of that. That’s the nature of our business, it’s cyclic.”

Atchison and Moss both acknowledged they’ve seen more people driving under the influence of intoxicants within the last few months.

So far, the year 2014 has been a little bit of a mixed bag when it comes to crime occurrences in Columbia County, with some officials pointing to the system of early releases from, and uncertainty about, the Columbia County Jail as a variable that pushed some crime statistics up.

In St. Helens, the police department responded to almost 1,500 calls in July 2013. By June of this year, it responded to 1,600.

The Scappoose Police Department responded to 715 calls in July of last year but only 574 by June of this year.

Non-violent crime rises in Columbia County

Even before this summer’s string of burglaries, the county experienced an uptick in burglaries and theft.

“Columbia County’s been going up steadily for the last three years,” Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said of property crimes. “Those crimes are probably the biggest upswing that we’ve seen both in the numbers and experientially.”

Oregon Uniform Crime Reports reflect an almost steady increase in property crimes in the county over a five-year period. In 2008, property crimes totaled slightly more than 1,000. By 2012, there were 1,283 crimes.

Columbia County Jail was at risk of closing earlier this year for lack of sufficient funding.

Voters initially rejected a ballot measure for a jail levy, but approved a $7.07 million measure in May.

The announcement of the squeeze on local authority and housing of inmates may have sent a message to would-be criminals.

“We had some folks from Seattle come through here who said they only came here because they thought they wouldn’t go to jail,” Atchison said last month.

The Columbia County District Attorney’s office filed 339 criminal cases during the first two quarters of 2014, from January to June 30. Last year, 281 cases were filed during that time.

Lax enforcement leads to repeat offenders

While Atchison suggested county data shouldn’t be taken at face value, he said even a slight rise in the number of misdemeanor and felony cases doesn’t indicate a less safe community. He clarified the numbers, saying cases filed don’t represent a total picture of crime in the county and adjustments to cases after the data is released may indicate fewer filings this year.

“A [small] increase in a fairly compact number looks bigger than it is,” Atchison said. “The numbers still don’t seem that far out of line.”

Still, the county is struggling with limited resources at its jail until funding from the levy translates into the hiring of more corrections deputies. Lower level offenders are routinely released early and, often, become repeat offenders.

“Around 2011 is when we started releasing people early and not holding people as long at the local level,” Dickerson said. He said he is hoping that once funding is restored to the jail, suspects can be held for longer terms.

While Oregon doesn’t have a “three strikes” policy like California and Washington, the state can seek harsher sentences for repeat offenders.

“If you’ve been convicted two or more times for that crime, you can get 18 to 24 months in prison,” Atchison explained. “We had one guy with 16 prior property crimes on his record. He ended up getting 36 months in prison for a sentence that normally would’ve been 30 days in jail.”

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