Criminal Justice Section
Criminal Justice Magazine
Volume 19 Number 2
CHAIR'S REPORT TO MEMBERS
Crime Fighters and Tax Collectors
By Norman K. Maleng
Norman K. Maleng, is the chair of the Criminal Justice Section and the King County prosecuting attorney in Seattle, Washington.
The optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty instead of the difficulty in every opportunity.
- Abraham Lincoln
A moratorium on opportunities, please. I need to recover from the last one.
- Mason Cooley, American Aphorist of the 1920s
My home county of King County, Washington, is the 12th largest county in the United States. It is a beautiful place, full of urban culture and natural wonders, and we are proud of the outstanding criminal justice system that we have built. King County also has something in common with most of the counties in the nation, large and small—we are broke. We no longer have sufficient tax revenue to support our court system, law enforcement, or the other vital government services the county provides.
King County’s revenue comes mostly from property tax and sales tax. A few years ago a citizen initiative capped the annual property tax growth at 1 percent instead of 6 percent, which had been the historical practice. Sales tax receipts have plummeted with the sagging economy, so in a few short years our annual revenue growth that had been at 8 percent is now hovering between 1–2 percent.
Meanwhile, labor costs are increasing at an annual rate of 8 percent due to rapidly increasing health insurance costs and a multitude of labor agreements that mandate annual salary increases for the 80 percent of the county’s workforce covered by collective bargaining agreements.
King County spends about 72 percent of its general expense budget on criminal justice—the jail, the sheriff, the prosecuting attorney, public defense, and the courts. The financial strain caused by the imbalance between expenses and revenues is forcing every department in the county to set new priorities and reexamine the systems that developed during more prosperous times.
Our difficulty, as President Lincoln observed, initially created opportunities for all of the actors in the criminal justice system to examine our practice. Our first focus was on the county jail population. We developed jail alternative programs, reformed our pretrial release programs and renegotiated contracts with the cities that used the jail for municipal misdemeanants. The result: we reduced the average daily population by more than 500 inmates, saved millions of dollars in operational costs, and put off planning for any new jail construction for another decade.
The “opportunity” of a fiscal crisis at first presents itself as a way to do things differently. It creates the impetus for agencies that used to compete for growing pots of money to instead cooperate on achieving systemwide efficiencies. In our case, it has created the climate for all agencies to engage in priority setting and resulted in quicker implementation of drug and mental health treatment and jail alternatives without any apparent decrease in community safety.
But the county is still broke. All future budget projections show a growing gap between revenue and costs into perpetuity.
As I write, another citizen initiative is gathering signatures to not just cap the growth of local property taxes but to slash taxes by 25 percent. The initiative’s basic appeal to the self-interest of the voter makes this a simple and frightening proposal.
Crisis can force innovation and efficiencies, but there is a level of support for law enforcement and the courts below which government cannot fall. I need only to look south of the border to Oregon for examples of a criminal justice system devastated by crumbling county finances:
• In Lane County, Oregon, District Attorney Doug Harcleroad announced last month that he would cease to prosecute more than 1,600 felony cases a year involving drugs and theft, and more than 2,000 nonviolent misdemeanors, such as theft under $750, mail theft, credit card theft, and possession of marijuana. The D.A.’s office was forced to take a $1 million reduction in its budget and could only fill 24 of 32 assistant D.A. slots.
• In Multnomah County, Oregon, courts are closed on Fridays because 10 percent of court staff was laid off. Other staff are furloughed one day a week.
• After an announcement that “nonperson” misdemeanors would no longer be prosecuted, Portland police statistics show that property crimes have skyrocketed, especially residential burglary and auto theft. Citizens are outraged.
Is it possible that the people who are outraged over the growth in crime and the anemic response by law enforcement and the courts are the very same people who supported the tax cuts in Oregon that led to the decimation of public safety infrastructure?
A cynical prosecutor could say that the people get only the level of justice they are willing to pay for. But cynicism is a luxury we cannot afford; our mission is too important.
All over the United States, local governments are facing this bleak reality. High costs and static revenue will weaken local justice systems. Crimes will go unpunished, which will only encourage more crime.
Most people would agree this is a difficult situation; some might call it an opportunity. I see this as the opportunity to redefine our roles in public safety and the justice system. We have reached the point where leaders in criminal justice must also become leaders in local government finance.
No longer can elected prosecutors be passive recipients of tax money, focused solely on the pursuit of justice in the courtroom. An equal obligation of the office is to defend our place in the budget hierarchy. We must take our case directly to the people and let them know what they are getting for their tax dollars, and what consequences they face if we must weaken our forces.
Our biggest case is coming up in the court of public opinion. Our credibility and integrity will be on the line as we ask citizens to invest more tax dollars in criminal justice. Prosecutors will need to use the same zealous advocacy to push for increased taxes as we use to argue for longer sentences. Can a crime fighter also be a tax collector? The health of our criminal justice system depends on it. This is our next great “opportunity.”