Monday, November 3, 2014

No on Z! Yes on crime prevention programs!

Measure Z is the renewal of Measure Y, our Police, Fire and crime prevention programs special property parcel tax and parking tax that is up for renewal after ten years.    Over ten years most of the money raised went to Police ($159 million) and Fire ($95 million), and the smallest spending item was sent to the Department of Human Services for the crime and violence prevention programs ($38 million).  They were also able to get some grant monies for the DHS programs.

The crime prevention program is called Oakland Unite and its website tells us that the strategies are Youth Services, Family Violence, Reentry Services and Crisis Intervention. Look around the website, and you will find lots of support for getting funding.  An actual list of who HAS funding is found here: Oakland Unite functions more or less like any other Foundation handing out grants. 

If Measure Y were a grant recipient asking for a renewal after 10 years, an independent review of the past work, supervised by those giving the money (in this case us the voters) would inspect the program. 

The questions asked would be:  Was the program effective in dealing with the problem it was trying to address?   Was it cost effective?  Were funds spent wisely and properly?    Who benefited how?  How many benefited for how long?  What happens to the target community when they leave the program? 

Those questions have not been asked of Measure Y and that kind of review has not been done. 

So let’s go back to the top.  In 2004 we voted 20 million dollars a year for stable police and fire and to start down the path of violence and crime prevention, intelligently turning our backs on the “tough-on-crime” failures of the twentieth century.  Probably one of the smartest things we could have done given our prison system without rehabilitation and our parole system’s total failure.  I was in total support of Measure Y and totally support the concept inspiring that small part of the funds headed toward Social Services. 

Rough estimates are that Oakland incarcerates, and releases about 5 to 9 people on any given work day.  From what Probation and Parole employees have told me, about 13 to 17 thousand of our people in some form of incarceration or provisional release at any one time.  A lot of those going to jail are going back to jail and a lot of those coming out will not be out too long. 

There is no agency giving us a report on the whole situation and there is much massaging of numbers, but even given the lowest estimates of the size of this vicious circle of our criminal justice system, we are talking about thousands of people directly involved and serious stress and crisis for tens of thousands of Oakland families.  If you take families, friends and neighbors into account, it puts about one resident in eight into direct contact with some kind of Oakland crime and violence problem.  More if you count the victims of crimes.  It would be very hard to find anyone in town who has not been robbed, or has had a family member or friend who has been harmed in some way.   

We in Oakland know crime, and given that, we made a very informed choice to take the path of prevention.  Now I ask you to think about what you know about this city, the size of this problem and ask yourself if you think the numbers measure up for what we have experienced over the last 10 years. Looking over the Oakland Unite website you will see dozens of youth and family served in that time, probably hundreds, maybe even a couple thousand, but looking over the city you will see thousands, probably tens of thousands left to the way things worked before the ten year, forty million dollar, Measure Y experiment.   The whole project cost us $200 million when you add police and fire. 

I feel that we are letting the big ticket items fall too far down the list to be effective.  Given the limited resources, even with Measure Y/Z money, I feel we should focus on the areas of highest need and highest yield. 

Top of that list of high yield programs that should be a priority is Restorative Justice.  We need to stop sending so many people to jail and Restorative Justice Group-Family meetings provide a well-tested alternative.  Instead of a trial, sentence, and parole path, the offenders are brought to their community through the meeting in lieu of a trial and given a restitution and reform path to follow instead of a sentence.  Families and communities having difficulties, creating the conditions for the crime and violence should be able to receive targeted assistance.  This system has been worked on and the beginners’ mistakes have been made in other places.  Two things are known.  1) It costs a lot less than regular law enforcement. 2) Restorative Justice Systems have never performed worse than prison when it comes to repeat crimes. 

Some people think that prevention programs are the long term solution when in this case it is how we stop feeding the whirlwind RIGHT NOW.  How many crimes would we have prevented if we had had a serious Restorative Justice program in Oakland during the 10 years of measure Y?  We have been fixing flat tires as the potholes get worse. 

What do we have in the way of Restorative Justice after ten years of Measure Y? 
Maybe one or two cases resolved this way a week and some low number, amorphous support from the county without a clear plan or agreement.  We have lots of “great first steps” when we should have made it a lot further down the road.   

After our fifty to a hundred cases a year resolved with restorative justice practices, the 5 to 9 other criminal cases a day are taken to Court where the District Attorney’s office practices the same old policies of getting as many convictions as they can, getting as many years of sentencing as they can and trying as many youth as adults as they can.  You can go watch, it is in the main courthouse, ask the desk which departments are seeing criminal cases.  Since Measure Y went into effect a whole new generation of Oakland youth have been through lock up, almost none of whom were considered for an alternative resolution.  Many lives of crime have been started and made worse since 2004. 

For an example of Restorative Justice going well take a look at our own Oakland Schools.  And yes some of the push came from Measure Y.

School discipline has the same problems as the criminal justice system.  Restorative Justice has given a way to have better behavior, better participation and fewer suspensions and expulsions overall and less disproportionate damage to school careers of black and brown students.  This city/school collaboration is one of the few bright lights of the last ten years.

How about the other end?  What do we do for those who are about to be released?  Do they have a place to go?  An integration plan?  Have we met with their friends, family, and church before they get out?  Has the State offered them any rehabilitation, job training, basic education while they were in?    A bank account?  One of those Oakland ID cards?  So are we spending measure Y money to teach people how not to act like they just got out of jail and to tell them how to apply for the insufficient services? 

The re-entry programs on the Oakland Unite website seem very cool, but are they really targeted on the extreme situation a person finds themselves when the bus lands them down at MLK and San Pablo?  Do they measure up to the real needs out there?  Have we put a dent into parole violations and new convictions?  The State of California does not think so.  Google Little Hoover Commission and Parole. 

So, I think that the programs of Oakland Unite miss the main action.   The police feel that the main four social factors that need addressing are 1) substance abuse, 2) homelessness, 3) truancy and 4) recidivism. At least one of the four is present at most murder scenes. Only one of those is in the Measure Z priorities list.  Nothing is in there to set up a triage office of the Oakland Police to review every arrest BEFORE we hand it to the county for incarceration and the DA’s office for prosecution.  There is nothing in there to provide a serious number of half way houses and serious support to those getting out from behind bars. 

Well, isn’t something better than nothing?  Are we not doing something good, albeit not perfect?

Good arguments both at times.  In the case of Measure Z we are being asked to spend 20 million a year for the next ten years, pretty much along the lines of the last ten years.  If we pass measure Z, and we probably will despite me and my little blog, that will be the only money we will get.  The money it will raise is already spent.  There is no other money on the horizon and the whole process is focused on subcontracting, so there is little training or setup inside our city agencies and most of the work is done by non-union outside vendors. 

Isn’t Measure Z a case of “something-better-than-nothing”? I see it more as something ineffective standing in the way of doing what is most needed for crime prevention. 

Without Measure Z would we not be “letting-the-perfect-keep-us-from-doing-the-good”?  In my view Measure Z allows a lot of problems with what we are doing go un-fixed.  Council and the public will both think we are on the right track, when all we have done is really nowhere near enough or on target.  With Measure Z we will continue to have day to day operations at police and fire unstably funded by this temporary tax and there is nothing in the measure to demand police accountability or make sure we get the long promised community policing. 

Measure Z is a status quo measure that will give us status quo results. 

This is spending what little cash we have on some nonprofits while missing the boat. 

There is a whole other side to this discussion following the lion’s share of the funds.  The Police Department and City Council were sure able to spend those funds, and two thirds of our discretionary budget at the same time.  After ten years we still don’t have the promised Community Policing, and for that matter, we don’t have much police accountability at all.  We are STILL under court control for the Rider’s police abuse case.  Our police abuse cases compensation payouts add up to more than San Francisco and San Jose COMBINED.  About 10 million a year!  If we got that down, we could pay for everything Measure Y now funds without spending a dime of the special tax and we could spend the special tax on giving people a life after jail or helping them avoid that life of crime altogether. 

The last amendment to Measure Y was to fix the cutoff point for police funding.  That was after Quan crashed the program in a dispute with our police officers over pension contributions.  Almost all of the new police from the academies are offsetting the loss of 80 of our newest officers at that time.  Current council members scream at the thought of losing the Measure Y funding because they have already spent it on day to day operations that should come out of the general fund.  They still have not gotten a handle on our exaggerated police costs and pouring special tax funds into our police department is akin to pouring water into a bucket with holes in it.  Little makes it from the well to the kitchen.  Why would this improve under Measure Z when it did not improve after ten years of Measure Y? 

There are examples of Community Policing working just fine.  One is in Richmond CA.  In that town the civilians run the police and they hired a police chief who would implement their policies.  No special tax, just an active government and lots and lots of grass roots community work.  In Oakland, the man who wrote our Community Policing policy is running for mayor promising to finally make it happen. 

But crime is down?  There sure are a lot of politicians running around claiming credit for our nationwide drop in crime.  The numbers do not really credit any one thing.  Crime is down across the country; Oakland has followed the trend, not led it.  Right wingers claim that it is because of such things as Three Strikes and everyone trying to get reelected is saying that low crime rates prove them right on policies as diverse as Ceasefire and Stop and Frisk. 

At first after Measure Y crime went up.  It went up again when Quan became Mayor.  Way up.  We had some of the highest murder rates in years.  Now we have some of the lowest.  It would be bad sociology to conclude much yet.  It is good politics for some to blame Jean Quan and Measure Y for the high crime of 2010 and for Jean Quan and the Measure Z backers to claim the credit for the low crime of 2014.  How could both be true? 

Before we start running around saying this or that “works” we should ask ourselves “works to do what?”  I want something that works to prevent our youth from becoming criminals. 

If we do not vote in Measure Z, we can still continue with Ceasefire, Community Policing and Restorative Justice.  We should do as Richmond has done and tell the Police Department that this is what the residents have chosen to do and it is the police department’s job to do it well. 

We are not dealing well with convictions, releases and direct aid to families and 20 million a year on the Measure Z will not change that one bit. 

But Measure Z, like Measure Y before it, sucks all the money out of the budget while missing the mark. 

Our budget is not a short term disaster right now.  The sky will not fall on our non-profits’ heads if we vote it down.  We have the money we could use to pay directly for the programs that really deliver services to those it helps.  Remember that the Human Services part of Measure Z is the SMALLEST item on the menu.   We should review those projects, one by one, and fund them as they are found deserving.  We should have the whole program professionally, independently, reviewed and audited before setting up any more special taxes.   Our council fell down on the job by not doing this before putting the renewal on the ballot. 

A budget that works after Measure Z is over would be nice.  My choice would be to spend special tax moneys on special things, setup of new programs for example, and get operational funds from the operational budgets of City and County.  Use a ballot tax to set them up, use normal taxes to keep them running and we have something of a sustainable plan. 

The Measure Y had no such plan other than to come back to the public telling us we have to do it again. 

We also need to work out some details and have agreements with both the county and the state.  If we do things, such as restorative justice, or housing parolees, then we are doing things that are normally the county’s and state’s job.  If we keep people out of the criminal justice system, we are saving the state and county a lot of money.  We should negotiate getting some of those funds.  It is also our money.  The DA’s office, County social services, the Department of Corrections and so on, should either provide the services we all pay for, or help us pay for doing it here in Oakland ourselves. 

We should also have clear who does what in Oakland.  Everything related to social services, law and justice, crime and punishment overlaps with Alameda County and the State of California.  There is some coordination and cooperation now and such things as Ceasefire depend on it, but there is a lot more that needs to be done, especially when one of ours is let out of jail.  Some advanced planning and written agreements with state and county are in order. 

I am not saying that the whole thing is a total failure, far from it, just too expensive and ineffective to be worth renewing without reform.  Let’s take the time to fix it and bring back in better health.