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Our neighborhood’s getting rougher

Barrett Rainey
Second Thoughts

There’s really nothing remarkable about Kelli Lee Fields. You’d walk past her on any Eugene, Oregon street and probably never notice her. Except, she might be wearing the biggest smile of her life.

You see, Kelli Lee Fields was driving her car in Eugene late on a November evening. In the space of a couple of minutes, she was to blame for two wrecks and sending several people to the hospital – one with life-changing injuries. She was drunk. Legally sloshed. Before the officer finished writing up the incident report, she had more than a dozen charges against her. Pretty serious stuff. And, it wasn’t the first time.

Then the lawyers got into it. A little give here – a little plea there – and the list was pared down to nine counts to which she pled guilty. Drunken driving, third-degree assault, hit and run and criminal mischief among them. The judge bought off on the agreement and sentenced her to 15 months in the lockup. And off she went to the Lane County jail to serve her sentence.

Except – after she was processed in and ready to be shown her cell – she was out the front door with papers showing she had served her entire sentence. She was a free woman. She was free because the Lane County jail – built to house 500 prisoners – has laid off most of its staff and the 135 beds still active are full. So Kelli Lee Fields walked on her first day! To drive Eugene streets again.

About a month ago, a Eugene fella with a long criminal record – including bank robbery – was arrested for the second time in 90 days. He was taken to the Lane County jail, booked, and released. Less than two hours later, he held up another bank and was back again. Sheriff must have cut somebody else loose because – this time – he stayed.

You’ll find the same sort of thing happening in Josephine County where law breakers are routinely arrested, charged, booked and – released. Not unusual to see the same faces coming back again and again. The jail in Grants Pass has only a few beds occupied because so many jailers and other deputies have been laid off.

In the western parts of Josephine, armed civilians are prowling the streets and forest roads – “citizen patrols” they like to call themselves. Sheriff says it’s just a matter of time until somebody’s shot. The citizens claim, if the County can’t afford patrol officers, they’ll do it themselves.

In adjoining Curry County, Sheriff John Bishop is down to about a half-dozen or so deputies. The lockup’s full and local courts are putting criminals back on the streets. They’ve got a lot of repeat offenders there, too. Without more funding – which will have to come from outside the county – Bishop says he may have to go out of business by mid-summer. Close the sheriff’s office. Yep, it’s that bad.

For many years, these counties and more than a dozen others in Southern Oregon, have received millions of dollars from the feds. Long story but it was basically payment to local governments because the feds own most of the timberlands hereabouts. Since those lands were off the local tax rolls, the feds provided a temporary “in-lieu” assistance program. Operating word there is “temporary.” Payments are now ending. And counties that had been relying on those millions for their continuing operations are flat up against the wall.

Oregon’s congressional folk have been doing yeoman’s work trying to keep the dollars flowing – even if only on a new “temporary” basis.

But it’s coming to an end. And with that end, we are seeing more criminals walking who should be processed and locked up. We’re seeing increased crime. We’re seeing more arrests of violators who’ve already been arrested and released without trial. Sometimes more than once. We have higher unemployment. And we’ve got more folks “packing heat” under the guise of “self-protection.” With or without permits. We’re becoming a multi-county armed camp in the 21st century.

Southwest Oregon is now a testing ground for the National Rifle Association’s murderous “arm-everybody-for-safety” craziness. Gun stores here are selling out on the semi-automatics and the big cartridge carriers. Pawn shops have some pistols and single-shot rifles but little in the heavy weapon category.

So, while you may be angry or even disgusted with the current treasonous failure of our U.S. Congress to do its legal work, many of us hereabouts are much, much more angry. We’ve used our tax dollars by the millions to build jails, hire police and other law enforcement, build and staff the courts to see justice done and our streets made safe. Now, many of those institutions are still open but they’re simply employing people – many of whom can’t do their jobs because the system is going broke.

Our little county of Douglas put a few bucks away for the bad times. So we’re in better shape than some of our neighbors. But even that wise thrift can’t keep us afloat much longer.

The nation’s economy is recovering despite the best efforts of congress to get in the way. We’ll work our way out of our economic mess with or without the support our national government exists solely to provide. Things will settle into a new normal, the bills will get paid and life will go on. May take several years to wreak the necessary electoral wrath. Still, we’ll survive.

But in our little corner of the woods, we’ve got more than an intransigent bunch of bastards in D.C. to worry about. We’ve got to look over our shoulders when waiting for a teller at the bank to make sure that habitual Lane County guy with a gun isn’t next in line. And, as we drive out of the parking lot, there’s always Kelli Lee Fields of Eugene. Either ahead – or behind – or oncoming.

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