Opinion

Rebuttal: budget cuts — penny wise, or pound foolish? | Guest Column

Sheriff Rob Nou - Contributed photo
Sheriff Rob Nou
— image credit: Contributed photo

By Sheriff Rob Nou

I am distressed that the Editorial staff would conclude that criminal justice spending is excessive or disproportionate in San Juan County, or that cuts in the Sheriff’s Office or Prosecuting Attorney’s Office are inconsequential.

The editorial (“A costly cut?”; Jan. 25, pg. 6) cites spending in Jefferson, Pacific and Skamania counties in comparison to San Juan County.

The safety and quality of life in the islands is attractive for residents and visitors alike. Our tourism based economy depends on these factors in marketing the San Juan Islands as a desirable destination to visit, to play and in many cases, to stay.

The San Juan Islands are unique, safe and beautiful, but nevertheless a microcosm of our society at large. We are not immune from crime, and must make the investment in our criminal justice resources to protect what we cherish and hold dear.

Policing San Juan County is different than the mainland.

Your Sheriff’s Office is the only law enforcement agency in the county. There are no city police departments. There are no state troopers here. And the Sheriff’s Office has its sworn staff, currently 19 officers, deployed on three different islands, serving a population of 16,500.

All of the counties compared in the editorial have additional resources.

The Pacific County Sheriff has 18 sworn officers, also in Pacific County, city police departments in Long Beach, Raymond, Shoalwater, and South Bend, along with the Washington State Patrol. Total number of sworn officers serving in Pacific County: 45 for a population of 22,100.

The Skamania County Sheriff has 22 sworn officers, along with three WSP troopers. 25 officers serving 10,900 people.

The Jefferson County Sheriff has 23 sworn officers, the City of Port Townsend Police Department has 15 officers and six WSP troopers, for a total of 44 officers serving 31,000 people.

In Jefferson, Pacific and Skamania counties, officers can drive across the county 24/7 to help one another, regardless of employing agency or jurisdictional boundaries. San Juan County, deputies drive to the patrol boat, boat to the other island where they are needed (weather permitting), and then figure out how to get to the scene.

According to figures from the State Auditor, Jefferson County spends 63 percent of its general fund budget on law and justice — $7.9 million of $12.4 million.

Pacific County spends 66 percent on law and justice ($4.7M of $7.1M). Skamania County spends 45 percent on Law and Justice ($5.7M of $12.5M). San Juan County’s law and justice rate is the lowest of the 39 counties in Washington, just 37 percent ($5.4M of $14.3M).

Looking at crime rates in those counties, what is the return on that law and justice investment?

As compiled by the state for Uniform Crime Reporting, Jefferson County has 21.4 index crimes reported per 1,000 population; 19.8 property crimes, 1.6 violent crimes.

Pacific County reports 31.0 index crimes per 1,000; 1.6 violent crimes, 29.5 property crimes. Skamania County, 21.3 index crimes per 1,000; 0.9 violent crimes, 20.4 property crimes. San Juan County’s index crime rate is 12.2 per 1,000; 0.8 violent crimes and 11.4 property crimes.

This shows that your criminal justice system here in San Juan County is effective and cost efficient.

Looking at all of Washington state, sworn officer numbers are declining.

From a five-year high of 1.62 officers per 1,000 population served in 2008, the average has dropped in 2010 to 1.49 officers per 1,000 served. San Juan County — currently 1.15 officers per 1,000, 23 percent below the state average.

How does a single vacancy affect us?

Simple math indicates it’s a 5 percent cut. But it depends what island the vacancy is on. On Orcas, where the current vacancy exists, it represents a 20 percent cut in the patrol force on Orcas Island.

Finally, the criminal justice system needs to be “in balance” in order to function effectively.

Law enforcement, prosecution, courts, juvenile services, corrections and parole and probation must have the resources to function in an expeditious and effective manner to further the cause of “justice.” Cutting law enforcement and prosecution may be penny wise, but here it is absolutely pound foolish.

We are not asking for more, only to keep what we have so as a community we can keep the way of life that we all cherish.

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