Our two cents on county’s proposed tax for criminal justice

It can be discouraging to read that about 75 percent of Snohomish County’s operating budget goes to support the work of the county’s criminal justice system: sheriff’s deputies, prosecutors, public defenders, court staff, jail staff and everything in between.

And, yes, now the County Council is considering a request to increase the county’s sales tax to fund spending that would address the growing and intertwined problems with property crimes, heroin and other addictions and homelessness. A hearing is set for Monday morning on the proposal that would send the tax request before voters for the Aug. 2 primary election, as reported Tuesday by The Herald’s Noah Haglund. Voters would be asked to increase the county’s share of the sales tax by 0.2 percent, adding two cents to a $10 purchase.

The revenue, which would be split among the county and its cities, is expected to generate $15 million annually for the county and another $10 million that would be shared among the cities on a per capita basis.

The common criticism for such increases is that the county is “throwing money at the problem.”

Granted, $25 million or more in additional sales tax is no pittance, especially when the total sales tax rate in many of the county’s cities for state and other taxing districts is 9.8 percent, that’s 98 cents for that same $10 purchase. The county’s finance staff estimates that the average county household would pay an additional $94.37 a year.

But, considering how the county plans to use the revenue, if the money is being thrown it’s being thrown accurately.

Sheriff Ty Trenary wants to use a recent report that has outlined suggestions to increase efficiency and better direct the department’s resources, among them hiring more deputies and improving the training they receive for responding to subjects with addiction and mental illness. Already, the Everett Police Department is working with the county’s Department of Human Services to send out mental health workers with officers, expanding the toolbox beyond arrests to inform those they contact as to social services and resources available when an arrest isn’t necessary but assistance is.

But more arrests also could be a productive outcome, depending on what happens after the arrest.

Economist Peter Orszag, the former director for the federal Office of Management and Budget from 2007 to 2008, noted in a commentary for Bloomberg View last week that FBI data for 2014 shows that only about half of the violent crimes in the nation result in arrest; an even smaller percentage of burglaries, 14 percent, see an arrest.

The solution, Orszag writes, isn’t harsher punishment; lengthy prison sentences do little to prevent crime and may actually be encouraging recidivism, as families, left without someone with the potential to work, are thrown further into poverty.

“A better approach involves not only expanding education and employment opportunities, to provide better alternatives to crime, but also increasing the odds that a criminal will be captured,” Orszag wrote.

A report to Gov. Jay Inslee early last year found that while the nation’s incidence of property crimes had decreased by 11 percent between 2009 and 2013, according to FBI data, Washington state’s property crime rate increased by 1 percent over the same period.

It can’t be a coincidence that Washington also is the only state where community supervision isn’t a sentencing option for most convicted of property crimes. Instead, those arrested serve short sentences and are put back out on the street with little follow-up.

Bills were introduced in the Legislature that year that would have worked with the report’s findings to change sentencing guidelines and require supervision for many convicted of property crimes. But the bills in the House and Senate never advanced to floor votes in 2015; this year they were reintroduced and retained for further consideration but went no further.

Work is needed at the state and national level to address problems in sentencing and in finding ways to address recidivism, but that shouldn’t prevent the county and its cities from taking the steps they can to supplement and better use the resources the taxpayers provide.

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