Sunday, December 5, 2010
How do state and local governments get a handle on spending without sacrificing public safety? As the economy continues to sputter, there are ominous signs that the era of declining crime rates is about to come to an end.
The new year will bring with it new leadership in 26 states, including Ohio and Pennsylvania. With much of the new leadership there is a pledge to balance the budget without raising taxes — a laudable goal — but one that brings with it many implications.
There are concerns about education, infrastructure, entitlements and public safety. Without addressing the impact that educational failure and the loss of basic subsistence have on crime rates, the bigger concern is that staples of public safety like the police, the courts and prisons may be at risk.
Right now, in nearly every state, inmates who years ago received long sentences, often the result of draconian mandatory drug laws, are being released. Enormous state correction budgets are being slashed. Policymakers in many states are looking at early release programs. Lawmakers are experimenting with diversion programs to put less people in prison. What does it all mean? Offenders who were or would have been in prison, even as recently as 24 months ago, are walking the street.
Local governments cannot afford to maintain their current compliment of police officers. There are layoffs as state and federal funding dry-up. For instance, Newark, N.J., has a violent crime rate eight times the rest of the state, yet Newark is in the process of reducing its police force by 13 percent.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has been touted by some incoming state leaders as a shining example that budgets can be balanced without raising taxes. Newark is the collateral damage that comes with a daring new political philosophy. Can Youngstown be far behind? Mahoning County Sheriff Randall Wellington may lay-off as many as 14 more deputies after Christmas. In spite of major concessions, 80 deputies have already been laid-off and substantial portions of the county jail have been moth-balled.
Prosecutors and public defenders have been laid-off around the country. In Lawrence County, the commissioners closed the court house last year to save money. Local service agencies that provide mental health and drug and alcohol treatment will also feel the pinch. Services for offenders struggling to transition back into the community will no doubt begin to disappear.
The recipe for community tumult is plain to see. Fewer offenders in prison, less opportunity for treatment and smaller police forces inevitably means higher violent crime rates. State taxes may not increase, but what will be the cost to cities and towns across the country.
Soaring violent crime in places like New York City, Orlando and Austin, Texas may be a harbinger of things to come.
According to the Wall Street Journal, New York City recently reported an overall drop in crime. The drop was attributed to the city’s re-classification of theft. Hidden in the “drop” was the fact that all four violent crime categories are projected to increase by the end of the year, including 15 percent increases in both murder and rape.
The number of homicides in Orlando this year has already surpassed the total number for 2009, according to the Orlando Sentinel. The first week of November marked the 45th killing of the year, compared with 33 last year. University of Central Florida sociology professor Jay Corzine told the Sentinel, “The poor economic conditions are affecting families.”
As of the end of November, there were already 35 homicides in Austin so far this year — a 13-year high. According to the Austin American-Statesman, there were only 75 homicides committed in Austin between 2007 and 2009.
No one wants to pay more taxes. Then again no one wants to be mugged, robbed, raped or murdered. There has to be a balance between fiscal responsibility and civic responsibility — let’s hope that policymakers around the country can strike that balance in 2011.