Townhall-style meeting addresses property crime
Last Tuesday, July 30, citizens from Quincy and George showed up at a meeting in George to listen to representatives from local law enforcement, a judge, the county prosecutor and local representatives on how to best deal with the rise in property crimes.
Andrew Erickson, who organized the event, spoke first about his frustration with what he felt was the lack of follow-through and response for these crimes.
Erickson explained that his family business had been broken into. He had an overall positive experience with the law enforcement officers who responded, but that it seemed like the perpetrators of these crimes go through the system and are let out to commit the same crimes all over again.
Sheriff Tom Jones thanked the audience in George for the invitation and constructive conversation. He responded to a question regarding follow-up on property crime cases and the perception that some were falling through the cracks.
“If we have staff not prosecuting or investigating a crime, I don’t like that,” Jones said. “I am pressing on staff to do follow-ups.”
Jones also responded to a question about whether building a new jail would help reduce crime or not, and if it would be funded in the first place. A proposal for a 0.3 percent sales tax increase in the county would go toward criminal justice, would cover the cost of building a new jail facility and would also send funds to cities.
Jones pointed out that the current jail, which was finished in 1986, was refurbished to grow to a 198-bed capacity in what originally was meant to house 86 inmates. He went on to explain that there simp-ly isn’t enough room in the jail for every booked person that comes through, but Jones stated that the sheriff’s office does try to find room for new inmates, even though it is difficult.
Grant County prosecutor Garth Dano took the podium. He suggested that the best way to create change in the criminal justice system was to go to legislators and encourage them to make changes to the state sentencing guidelines. One solution Dano offered was to work within the sentencing guidelines and give power back to the judges in the courtroom.
Representative Alex Ybarra stated that Democrats are not in favor of supporting law enforcement. “We will try to get legislation passed as best we can,” Ybarra, a Republican, continued. “No way are we going to be like Seattle. It hasn’t happened yet and it won’t happen.”
Ybarra’s reference was to the homelessness, drug use and mental health problems that seem to be plaguing the Emerald City at present.
“I don’t want Quincy or George to become like Seattle.”
Representative Tom Dent spoke on his own issues with property crime, which included the theft of his Polaris Ranger vehicle from his shop at home. The vehicle was returned, although destroyed.
Dent stated that he is continuing to try to move bills along in the state legislature regarding sentencing, and the bills keep getting stuck. He wants instead to take aim at helping to prevent crime by helping at-risk kids and investing in them statewide so they have a better future.
Dent quoted a statistic that 60 percent of the inmates coming into the Spokane County Jail have been through the foster care system at some point. He stressed the need for legislators to do a better job supporting kids.
Quincy Police Chief Kieth Siebert said that some suspects in recent property crimes in Quincy, including burglary and theft, were minors. One was just 13 years old. Siebert suggested that citizens need to go to the open legislative sessions and make themselves heard in order to change the law and justice system.
Dano explained that what needs to be changed in Olympia in order to help local law enforcement are the standard sentencing ranges, which come from a formula judges use to determine how long a sus-pect is going to spend in jail. The same formula is also used to determine bail. He noted that typically for property crimes, the judge is required to look at criminal history, and the likelihood that the suspect will commit the crime again.
“The jail was built in 1986,” Dano continued. “It was constructed with 86 beds. We have anywhere between 170-200 inmates. We are releasing people for minor crimes and letting them go for lack of facility space.”
Dano expressed frustration with the new sentencing guidelines that burden judges with paperwork. He pointed out that in the past, a criminal’s history and sentencing recommendations all fit on one page. Now judges must fill out a long form taking into account all of the different factors that will de-termine the length of sentencing for each individual.
Dano was quoted as stating that judges are constrained by a sentencing range. He also mentioned that of the 800-900 felonies per year that are committed, maybe 30-40 of those cases actually go to trial.
“What are you going to do with the other cases?” Dano asked. “These are pragmatic decisions our office has to make.”
One audience member, who only stated his name as “David,” spoke about how he was a three-time felon who had turned his life around after being released from jail.
“Going to jail was good and bad,” he said. “It is deeper than doing time. When you come out of it, how are you going to be positive in the community.”
Dent responded by affirming that Olympia needs more young men who have been through the system like David to testify on the behalf of law and justice.
“We are not going to give up,” Jones said. “We are going to work with legislators to put forward legislation to put them in jail.”
Dent mentioned that some issues divide the legislators. Currently in Washington, there is a Democratic majority. Dent believes that when the numbers of legislators are more equal on both sides, then both parties are forced to compromise more and work together.
Jones stated that he has attended many such town hall meetings and saw and felt the frustration in the room.
“It subsides for a while and sneaks back up,” Jones said.
Overall, Grant County law enforcement and local representatives handed the issue of property crime back to the citizens, encouraging citizens to go to Olympia to speak out and create change in what they see are lenient sentencing laws that allow thieves to go free. Here are some phone numbers and addresses anyone can use to voice their opinion about property crime:
Representative Alex Ybarra
469 John L. O’Brien Building
P.O. Box 40600 Olympia, WA 98504-0600
Toll Free: 800-562-6000
Direct Line: 360-786-7808
Rep. Tom Dent
Rep. Judy Warnick
Olympia Office: 360-786-7624
District Office: 509-766-6505
103 Irv Newhouse Building
P.O. Box 40413
Olympia, WA 98501
By Tammara Green, For the Post-Register