Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Thoughts on a Jail Part III : Letter to Whatcom County Council

Dear Council Members

Thanks for the opportunity to comment on the subject of Jail building in Whatcom County.  I have been data blogging on crime,arrests and jail capacity statistics since meeting Joy Gilfilen and Irene Morgan three weeks ago @ . I have four points I would like to make:

(1) Law and Justice spending is a significant cost to city and county budgets.
(2) Some analysis shows that public safety is increased with public prosperity.
(3) An analysis of historical, current crime and prosperity of existing cities can provides us with templates for our own growth in Bellingham and Whatcom County.
(4) Data analysis is probably an underutilized tool for small counties that could help with planning and modeling the economic consequences of crime, growth and prosperity.

#The Impact of Law and Justice#
Law and Justice spending occupies a significant portion of many small and local community budgets and this is regrettable since it prohibits spending on other resources that may benefit the community. In larger cities like Oakland, California where my wife and I have come from, budgets for police, jail, courts, and  other aspects of law and justice are measured in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Often general fund spending for social amenities is impacted by the strength of law and justice spending. Not all communities suffer quite as much from such deprivation. Select communities in CA and WA often have low crime rates, high median incomes, and much lower law and justice needs.

#The Value of Economic Stimulus#
The value of enriching the prosperity of your community reveals a direct relationship between crime and public safety. Bellevue, WA is a very prosperous city with a much larger in population than Bellingham. Yet it's nominal violent crime is often lower than Bellingham. When we talk about forecasting our needs for law and justice spending, we are also very much talking about how we intend to create or not create, prosperity among our populace. Conversely, poverty can correlate highly with increased crime.

#Toward the darkness or light? At what price?#
Some cities on the west coast experience high crime levels due to narcotics trafficking, gangs, and associated criminal activity. I suspect that cities like Oakland, CA which have persistent poverty, easy access to containerized shipping, highway systems, and airport and rail, all suffer from increased narcotics trafficking. Cities on the west coast that fit such a profile include Long Beach, CA, Oakland, CA, and quite possibly Tacoma, WA. Obviously, this is not the template we want model for Bellingham and Whatcom County's future development.

Cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Vancouver B.C. , although big cities with their own crime, are leading the way as "cities of light" on the West Coast. Each of these cities are now currently suffused with busy and working downtowns, desirable neighborhoods, and lots of high tech employment. Although it is true these cities suffer from ever increasing housing prices and high costs of living, their crime rates have fallen as their median wage and tech industries have grown.  

Recently, I did a twenty year comparison of violent crime levels in Oakland, CA and Seattle, WA. Surprisingly, Seattle and Oakland had a comparable per capita rate of violent crime in the early '90s. Since then, my native city of Oakland, CA has suffered wave after wave of violent crime driven by narcotics trafficking. All of this despite heavy law and justice spending in Oakland. Both Seattle and King County's violent crime rates have seen a nearly continuous 20 year drop. Currently, Seattle and Oakland, CA violent crime rates are now as far apart as they have been in the last twenty years. 'East side' King county cities like Redmond, WA have violent crime rates that are comparatively very low. The general tend of crime in King County is downward. It is possible to make the observation that gentrification and high property prices are the West Coast price citizens pay to avoid gangs and homicides elsewhere. In housing the homeless the current thought is "housing first". Perhaps in preventing crime, the current thought should be "jobs first" or "living wage jobs first"

#The importance of data analysis in solving for both crime and prosperity#
During my crime analysis, I have discovered that there is a lot of data maintained in various repositories for crime,arrests,jail population. However, there is not enough analysis that I can find that can make the data valuable to communities who need to make decisions about law enforcement and public safety spending. I am concerned that small communities, who probably can not afford a "Chief Data Analyst" are not making use of best statistical practices in  public decision making.  I am concerned that this leaves small communities vulnerable to lobbying from out of town contractors and consultants motivated by profit oriented activity. (e.g. jail building, consulting, staffing, private or commercial run prisons)

#Final Thoughts#
We have an extraordinarily large jail and prison population in the United States, kept at much expense to taxpayers and communities. Perhaps it is time to rethink how we handle law and justice, both in policy and spending.  Would communities benefit from policy more focused not just on the needs and growth of the community, but more highly focused with state of the art statistical and machine learning tool sets from the practice of data analytics and 'big data'.?

Thank you,

Ryan M. Ferris
Bellingham, WA

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