Budget cuts in Seattle and King County have gone too far and are putting citizens in peril, argues Doug Justus, president of the King County Corrections Guild. Elected officials need to prioritize spending and fund public safety first.

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IT sounds almost too dramatic to be true: Today there are literally hundreds of individuals walking our streets who until recently would have been behind bars. Officials in our region have made the conscious decision to deal with declining revenues by simply not arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating criminals.

We recognize that times are tough and government revenue is down, but public safety is job one for city and county government, and budget cuts have already gone too far. Criminal-justice decisions need to be driven by justice and public safety, not spread sheets and budgets. Elected officials need to prioritize spending and fund public safety first.

King County’s jail population is much lower than expected for 2009. Our current average daily population is roughly 2,200 — 15 percent below 2008 and 20 percent below projections made just a few months ago.

Why? King County’s population certainly hasn’t decreased, and crime rates don’t generally drop during a recession. In fact, a recent report issued by the Police Executive Research Forum found that “44 percent of police departments report increases in certain types of crime which they believe can be attributed to the economic crisis.”

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All evidence indicates crime hasn’t decreased. What has changed is our approach to it.

County officials report that 90 percent of the decrease in jail population is due to a sudden and dramatic drop in the number of overnight arrests in the city of Seattle.

Seattle has provided no explanation to the county, but the city is in heated negotiations with the county over extension of the current jail contract and the site of a new regional jail. City officials are now citing the lower jail population numbers as justification for a new longterm contract with the county to house misdemeanants, and again to postpone building a new regional jail.

While the evidence regarding Seattle changing its arrest policies is circumstantial, there is no doubt that county officials have changed their practices due to budget cuts. King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg has stopped filing certain theft and drug crimes as felonies, while Sheriff Sue Rahr decided her deputies will no longer investigate thefts or property crimes that caused less than $10,000 in damage.

Finally, there is the fact that King County’s community corrections program of work release and electronic home monitoring has grown dramatically and continues to include individuals charged with violent offenses. Today, prisoners charged with firearms violations, assault, home burglary, and even child molestation and rape of a child, have been diverted into these money-saving but nonsecure programs. A significant number of these prisoners simply walk away. Last year, 91 prisoners, including 64 felons, escaped, and there are currently 63 prisoners listed on “escaped status.”

So Seattle has magically stopped arresting people at night, what was a felony is suddenly a misdemeanor, good luck if your car is broken into in unincorporated King County, and violent offenders are separated from society by nothing more than an ankle bracelet. But we are saving money.

Enough is enough. No more layoffs of police, prosecutors and corrections officers. None. We need more law-enforcement personnel, not fewer. Stop the diversion of violent offenders into work release and home monitoring. These are valuable programs but they were never intended for those accused of violent crimes.

And it is past time to break ground on new jail capacity. In July 2008, the King County Council unanimously voted for an ordinance to direct the executive to expand the Maleng Center’s jail in Kent, and negotiate with the cities in order to build a new regional facility. That process is stalled. Every serious leader in the region knows that new capacity is needed. Let’s get on with it.

This year, we will be electing the mayor of Seattle and a new King County executive. Voters need to ask the candidates one question above all others: Will you put safety first?

Sgt. Doug Justus is the president of the King County Corrections Guild, the union that represents King County corrections officers and sergeants.

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