My colleague Danny Westneat touched a live wire with his first-hand column about the police’s blasé response to property crime; it had triple the readership of any other story in Seattle Times website and 550 comments (and counting).
Property crime is out of control. Washington has the third-highest property crime rate in the U.S. That makes stories such as Danny’s especially galling.
What to do about the property crime problem? A Seattle Times editorial in September urged the Legislature to reconsider the state’s sentencing grid for lower-level property crimes, based on interesting work by a group called the Council for State Governments Justice Center. That group is helping a new state task force convened by Gov. Jay Inslee that is using massive amounts of state data to re-examine how we deal with crime.
For data nerds (me included), this is fascinating stuff; all three reports by the CSG can be found here. They show why Washington’s prison population continues to grow as overall crime drops, and why the state faces increasing demand to build a very expensive new prison. That’s in part because, for some budget and some policy reasons, Washington’s Department of Corrections stopped supervising thousands of low-level burglars after their release.
Instead, we basically wait until they become serial criminals, and then give them unusually long prison sentences. That deters crime for as long as they’re in prison. But it ignores research showing the high cost-benefits of deterring crime through supervision and alternative sentencing.
Put this in the context of Danny’s burglar. If police had bothered to make the arrest, and the burglar would’ve been prosecuted, the burglar (if he or she didn’t have a huge rap sheet) would serve several months in jail, and then be released cold, with no probation officer to keep an eye out.
As the Times’ editorial suggests, a different approach – emphasizing probation supervision and alternative sentencing – could help reduce the crime rate and reduce the need for a new prison.
I understand the frustration spilling out on the comment thread to Danny’s column. My car was stolen from the front of my house this summer, with my daughter’s bike in the trunk. I got the car back within a week when Seattle Police found it parked just off Aurora Avenue North, probably thanks to the fact the gas tank was almost empty when it was swiped.
Left behind by the car thief was an empty water bottle, full of cigarette butts, tucked into the cupholder. Police hadn’t even dusted it for prints.