After announcing last week that the city of Portland would be working with the U.S. Attorney's office to prosecute some illegal gun cases at the federal level, Mayor Sam Adams told The Skanner News that prison reform and prevention should accompany any enforcement crackdowns.
Adams says the philosophy to add additional prison time through the federal prison system serves several functions – to address the immediate safety needs of the community by removing violent offenders for longer periods of time, and to sever ties that offenders have with local criminal gangs.
"First and foremost, we need to do everything we possibly can to provide for the safety of innocent people," he said. "The federalizing of gun crimes we did in the 1990s, with the first wave of violent gang crimes. It had an immediate beneficial impact on reducing the number of people who were killed an injured with guns and I seek to do the same."
The federal/local partnership comes at a time that Adams is pushing for a reform of city firearms laws, which would create gun-free zones, lock laws, theft reporting mandates and specialized curfews.
But whether gang members will be deterred from carrying or using illegal firearms by technical readings of federal law will soon be seen. Adams insisted this week that juveniles involved in gun crimes would be unaffected by federal involvement, although federal law could technically be used to try certain juveniles for serious, violent firearm and drug felonies.
http://www.justice.gov/usao/aln/firearms.pdf Here is a brief overview of the law regarding federal firearm sentencing enhancements.
Federal firearm enhancements largely target persons who are not allowed to have guns – felons, dishonorably discharged military and those with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions – but only if the prohibited class of person possesses a firearm that has been used in interstate commerce. In other words, if a felon obtained an illegal firearm in Oregon, but the firearm was manufactured in another state or country, then the federal statute applies.
The federal statute also applies if a person "uses" a firearm while committing a drug trafficking offense. Other enhanced penalties apply for "Armed Career Criminals" – those with three violent or serious drug offenses. Depending on the charge, a defendant faces up to life in prison without the possibility of parole for certain gun law violations.
Criminal Justice experts have conflicting findings on the effectiveness of prison to deter or prevent future crime. Many proponents of the country's incarceration binge since the 1970s point to the decrease in violent crime that has occurred since the 1990s, but The Sentencing Project in its "Incarceration and Crime" report notes that some states saw differences in crime and incarceration.
"An overview of changes in incarceration and crime in all 50 states reveals no consistent relationship between the rate at which incarceration increased and the rate at which crime decreased," according to the report. "Between 1991 and 1998, those states that increased incarceration at rates that were less than the national average experienced a larger decline in crime rates than those states that increased incarceration at rates higher than the national average."
Adams acknowledges the need for reforms in state and federal corrections systems to better improve the reformation process of offenders. He says that enforcement alone will not do the job and looks to Harvard University's David Kennedy as a source to craft better policies for preventing young people from entering a "life of violence."
"My push in this area doesn't start or end with enforcement," Adams says. "There's a lot of improvement with the corrections system that needs to occur, in terms of how we in local government partner or don't partner with the corrections system."
It's not clear how many gun cases that U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton believes he will be able to federalize. His office did not return information requests by press time.
As more offenders from Portlander get imprisoned in the federal corrections system, Adams says there is a need to make sure they will return to the city reformed.
"We need to keep track of the folks that get put in the federal system, perhaps far away, and make sure our efforts to reach out to them whether they're in Florida, Ohio or New York State, likely return to Portland, that our thinking assumes that," he said.
A study released recently by Iowa State University makes an attempt to put a price tag on violent crimes. Researchers say that the societal cost for one murder is a whopping $17 million, with rape coming in at $448,532, armed robbery at $335,733 and aggravated assault at $145,379. The researchers say this is why effective prevention programs are so important.
This cost – including the human cost – is not lost on those at city hall looking for solutions. Adams hopes at least some gang members will turn to city services to help them exit a life of violence – services in need of reform.
"How do we expect anyone to take us up on our offer, to turn away from the life of violence, how do we expect that to be meaningful to someone that would have to figure out where to go, with up to 20 different opportunities for assistance? Honestly, it is not a meaningful offer," he said. "The status quo is not a meaningful offer for someone who wants to turn away from a life of violence. Equally so, unless we're reaching folks that are in the penitentiary, corrections system federal or state, unless we have meaningful engagement well before they get out, it isn't meaningful. It doesn't detract from personal responsibility, but if people had made the sincere decision to improve their life and there aren't any realistic options for them or its totally indecipherable, then that's where there's collective responsibility."