29 September 2005

Denver's Jail and the Big Picture.

Denver voters last year passed a proposal to expand Denver's jails. It was not a moment too soon. Currently it has "2,583 inmates in facilities designed for 1,672." A downtown "justice center" for pre-trial detainees at the site of the Rocky Mountain News building is to be completed four years from now, in 2009. It will hold 1,500 inmates. An upgrade of the Smith Road facility, which will now house people who have been convicted of crimes, will house 1,000 inmates in 2010 with a design that could be expanded to 1,384 inmates if necessary. Fire up the addition. Denver is already 83 inmates over its design capacity for 2010, although alternative sentencing plans could reduce the number of inmates slights, and some of the recent surge in inmate roles, which has Denver far beyond planned levels, is due to one time changes in how jail sentences are calculated. Jail headcounts are up by 17%, but, most of that is due to longer sentences (in part due to the rule changes) rather than a lot more prisoners. Jail officials say that "For each day added to the average sentence . . . 123 more inmates are in the jail system."

Notably, at the same time that the jail is already bursting, arrests have actually dropped dramatically. Denver arrests are down 35% since 1998, despite an increasing population and increasing crime (crime is up 28% in Denver since 1998 according to FBI crime statistics). Traffic tickets are also down, 31%. DUI arrests are down 50%. Rape arrests (which tend to fluxuate randomly more from year to year because the base number is far smaller) are down 63%. The City's response so far, has been a plan to hire 87 more cops and implement the jail expansion.

Crime reports are up in the city in 2005, particularly in Denver's wealthier neighborhoods and for assaults (although Denver has had half as many murders as last year). But, crimes reported to the police are not an ideal measure.

"I would be in shock if I was the southeast district commander," said City Councilman Doug Linkhart.

That commander, Patrick Flynn, said property crime increased significantly in District 3 during the first half of 2005, particularly in the Washington Park, Cherry Creek and Congress Park neighborhoods.

Since then, he said, his detectives have made a series of key arrests that have tamped down the numbers.

Flynn also noted that his district has just five detectives - fewer than half the number it used to have. Last year, he said, only 26 percent of reported property crimes were even assigned to a detective for investigation.

As someone who has had his car broken into in front of his house twice this summer I can tell you that it is true. It is the policy of the Denver Police to not even investigate break ins like that. They simply do not have the resources to do so.

Charlie Brown is the City Councilman who represents the East side of Washington Park and parts of the City beyond it. Here's what he's doing:

City Councilman Charlie Brown, whose district includes part of District 3, said it is not news to him that crime is up.

Crime is "the No. 1 issue in my district," he said. He added that he is holding monthly meetings at District 3 headquarters with concerned residents.

The last one attracted about 60 people, he said.

Now, to put this all in perspective, Denver, indeed, even the worst parts of Denver, is not really all that crime ridden by national standards. The most crime ridden neighborhoods in Denver, like Sun Valley and Five Points, have not hit bottom to the extent of the most dangerous neighborhoods in Baltimore, the District of Columbia, Detroit, Buffalo, or Los Angeles. Women in my neighborhood feel safe walking their dogs alone after dark. Downtown Denver is vibrant day and night, it is a place where feelings of fun predominant over fear. The crime levels in the neighborhoods that are seeing big percentage increases in crimes reported to police are also the ones where the crime level remains very low. And, some of the drop in DUI and rape arrests is due to a genuine decline in DUI offenses and rapes in the City. No, not 50% and 63% respectively, but that is part of the decline. Some of this is a matter of growing pains. Not many central cities are growing at the rate that Denver is these days. More people means more crime, and it takes time for the City to catch up.

But, there is cause for concern. The Denver economy may not be running on all cylinders, but unemployment for August in the metro area was down to 4.9%, which is fairly healthy. Housing prices are stumbling at the moment (single family house prices fell slightly in September for the first time in a long time), rents fell some months ago, and foreclosures in the area are high, but Denver also hasn't seen a true housing crash. In short, nothing in Denver is so horrible that crime should be getting out of control.

If Denver is straining at a time when crime is at record lows nationally, how will it manage when the economy takes a turn for the worse? What if crime doubled over the course of a decade (an increase on average of just 7% per year)? What if arrests and convictions increased in lock step with that? Our planned jail and police forces are sufficient to stuggle with the existing problems, but there is no room for growth (not to blame political leaders in Denver for that, they probably couldn't have gotten the people to vote in the funding if they hadn't cut the project down to current levels).

I'll save an even bigger picture, the rise of incarceration and overall crime rate trends, for another post.

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