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Crime rate in Oregon drops to lowest levels in four decades
Author: Maxine Bernstein, The Oregonian
Posted: September 13, 2010

http://www.oregonlive.com/news/index.ssf/2010/09/crime_rate_in_oregon_drops_to.html

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While 2009 saw the largest percentage increase in the state's unemployment rate, crime in Oregon dipped to the lowest levels in four decades, according to FBI figures to be released today. 

Violent crime – including murders, rapes, robbery and aggravated assault -- fell 2.1 percent from 2008 to 2009, the lowest crime rate since 1969. 

Property crime, including burglary, thefts, auto theft and arson, dropped 10.2 percent from 2008 to 2009, falling below the national average for the first time since comparable data was collected starting in 1960. It marked Oregon's lowest property crime rate since 1966. 

Criminal justice experts cite myriad factors that they say helped spur the declining crime, namely the aging baby boomer population and Oregon's restrictions on pseudoephedrine, a primary ingredient in meth production and active ingredient in many cold medicines. 

They also say the numbers, which mirror a national trend, turn the common perception that crime goes up as the economy gets worse on its head. 

"We are on a long-term national trend of reduced violent and property crime, and that has been pretty consistent," said Craig Prins, executive director of Oregon's Criminal Justice Commission. 

Gov. Ted Kulongoski said the hard work of law enforcement, educators and local leaders is helping to deliver low-crime results, but cautioned that their work is not done. 

"With challenging future budgets, we must continue to strengthen our efforts on the front end, enhancing and improving prevention efforts as well as expanding rehabilitation opportunities for those in our jails and prison so when they reenter society they do not reoffend," Kulongoski said. 

The governor, who this summer called for shortening some mandatory sentences for criminals, said the state should not "over-invest in our prison system," noting that the state's incarceration rate has remained essentially constant since 2004, while crime has continued to decline. 

The state Criminal Justice Commission analyzed five-year intervals of the Oregon's incarceration rate. It showed significant drops in both violent and property crime from 1995 through 2000, when Oregon's prison population grew more than 50 percent. It also showed that when incarceration remained fairly flat from 2005 to 2008, violent crime and property crime continued to fall. 

"So we're getting this crime rate drop during a time when we didn't have to build prison beds to get it," Prins said. 

But Kevin Mannix, author of Measure 11's mandatory minimum sentences for violent crimes and the president of the Oregon Anti-Crime Alliance, argues that Measure 11, which went into effect in 1995, had a significant effect on the drop in crime in Oregon, as did other tougher sentencing laws.

"I'm not saying it was the only thing, but I am saying it was a key factor," Mannix said. "You just watch crime drop off the cliff in 1995. That was dramatic...I'd say the public safety story for Oregon is we're having success, so let's celebrate." 

All agree the resounding drop in property crime is likely tied to significant drops in methamphetamine labs, following state laws that forced Oregon pharmacies to keep pseudoephedrine behind the counter, require picture IDs for purchase and prescriptions for all pseudoephedrine products. 

There have been fewer meth lab seizures and arrests. The state Criminal Justice Commission found that the number of meth lab seizures in the state dropped to an average of a handful a month in December 2008, compared to about 43 a month in June 2004. 

Additionally, meth arrests in Oregon fell by 40 percent from March 2007 to March 2009, the commission reported this summer. 

Meth is now trafficking from Mexico, but limitations on ingredients have halved its potency, Prins said. 

Oregon's four largest cities -- Portland, Salem, Eugene and Gresham -- all experienced drops in violent and property crime between 2008 and 2009. As did other cities across Oregon, including Beaverton, Bend, Hillsboro, Medford and Springfield. 

Corvallis was the exception, with a 21 percent increase in property crime. 

Corvallis Capt. Jonathan Sassaman said the major public safety problem in the city historically has been property crimes, including car and bike thefts. He said he thinks it's driven by drugs, unemployment and said the city's estimated influx of 20,000 university students, who become targets of property crime, may explain the increase. 

"It is a challenge every year to educate that population on good crime prevention strategies," Sassaman said. 

Prins, from the state commission, addressed a recent meeting of top public safety leaders in Oregon. 

He showed a graphic that revealed how the state's crime rate decline also has mirrored a drop in Oregon's male population between the ages of 15 and 39, between 1989 and 2008. Most crime is committed by males in that age range, and the proportion of this group in the total population is commonly used as a predictor of crime. 

Multnomah County Michael Schrunk credited law enforcement collaboration with community partners, the incarceration of the most dangerous offenders, and community court programs as all services that have helped make the county safer. 

Portland Police Chief Mike Reese, who is looking to stem an uptick in gang violence this summer, cautioned the crowd not to get complacent. 

In Portland, which was a key driver of the crime rate reduction statewide, crime is up eight percent as of Aug. 21, compared to the same period a year ago, with auto thefts and larcenies from auto increasing.