Invest in kids' futures now, save on crime later

In 2004, Thurston County voters overwhelmingly rejected an $88 million plan to build a regional criminal justice center with expansion to 640 jail beds.

Voters said they wanted to see their dollars spent up front - in prevention and intervention programs to reduce the need to forever build more and bigger jails.

That's why city and county officials must come together in the next few weeks to formally agree on a ballot proposition to be put before voters at the November general election. City and county officials must not miss this opportunity to put a three-tenths of 1 percent sales tax increase on the ballot this fall. As proposed by a citizens committee, two-thirds of the $10 million raised each year would be spent on prevention and intervention programs with the remaining third spent on incarceration - to ensure that criminals are held accountable for their crimes.

This is NOT a "get soft on crime" ballot proposition.

'Upstream' prevention

Community statistics provide a telling picture why we, as a society, must change the way we address criminal behavior. We simply must invest "upstream" in proven prevention programs to make sure kids are ready for school, that they stay in school and get their high school diploma, that at-risk parents get home visits and that their children receive substance abuse counseling and other intervention services to ensure a long and productive life.

Consider these statistics from various county studies:

Those tough beginnings for kids too often lead to problems later in life. Consider these numbers:

So why should those awful statistics be of concern to law-abiding residents? The answer is simple: Jailing criminals is a costly proposition.

Right now, 78 percent of the county's expense budget goes to criminal justice programs - the jail, the sheriff's office, the courts, prosecutors and defense attorneys and their administrative offices. This county is spending almost $54 million a year to arrest, try and lock up criminals. That's right, $54 million annually.

The average household in Washington state pays $1,062 for criminal justice programs each year, according to a study by the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. Think of that - $1,062 per year, up from $539 per household in 1975.

Breaking the cycle

We, as a society, are spending a boatload of money on criminals. We have more laws and more people behind bars. But we have not broken the cycle. We see generation after generation involved in abuse, neglect and criminal behavior. In 2005, more than half the inmates in the county jail were incarcerated for repeat offenses.

Isn't it time we got smarter and steered people away from criminal activity in their formative years? Isn't it time to break the cycle?

A forward-thinking group of Thurston County residents under the banner of "Family Investment Proposal Committee" has been meeting for three years to study the statistics and develop a strategy. They are asking the cities and county to join together to support a ballot proposition increasing the sales tax by three-tenths of 1 percent. Those remarkable community leaders - who have stepped up where elected leaders have not - share a common vision of a better quality of life and saved lives through four specific goals:

It's an incredibly innovative and exciting proposal.

One: They are proposing to use only proven practices and evidenced-based programs. In other words, they are going to fund only programs with proven records of success. They are building on other local programs such as drug court, mental health and family court and electronic home monitoring that have been innovative and successful.

Two: They will insist on strong accountability. They are proposing a 10-year tax with regular reports to the community in between. A decade from now, voters can decide whether the prevention/innovation programs are working and whether the tax should be continued.

Three: Financially, it's a modest proposal - 3 cents on every $10 purchase. Based on sales tax receipts, an average person will spend $44 per year. Compare that with the $1,062 the average family spends today for criminal justice programs.

The reactions to the proposal from the various government jurisdictions has run the gamut, according to Thurston County Administrator Don Krupp.

Yelm has said it's not the right time to proceed and encouraged the county commissioners to raise taxes on their own with the additional dollars going to operate the jail.

Tumwater and Rainier have endorsed the plan wholeheartedly and said, "Let's move forward now."

Olympia has expressed interest and a desire to work out the details.

Bucoda and Tenino have not responded.

Lacey was "ambivalent" and "skeptical," according to Krupp.

Decisive leadership

This is no time for hesitation. This is time for bold and decisive leadership by our elected officials. The citizens committee has put forward a thoughtful, innovative plan to use proven programs to reduce the number of kids dropping out of school and the number of inmates being booked in the county jail.

The age-old axiom is so true in this case: "Pay me now, or pay me later." It's far better to invest now - in prevention/intervention programs than to waste lives - later - by spending an ever-increasing number of tax dollars on additional jail beds.

It's time for the cities and the county to come to the table, work out the details of this prevention plan and send it to voters in time for the November general election.