Public safety is the goal

Public safety is the goal

February 12th, 2012 in Opinion Times

Tennessee has a crime problem -- it ranks fifth per capita in the nation for violent crimes and leads the country in the number of meth labs -- that has persisted for years despite various programs to curtail it. Recent efforts have enjoyed some success, but not enough. State crime rates are down, but are still above the national average. Gov. Bill Haslam's new public safety action plan should prove more useful in making the state a safer place to live and to work.

Crime suppression programs are not novel to Tennessee or any other jurisdiction. What's new about Haslam's proposal is its breadth and its depth. The governor's broad-based plan involves 11 departments and agencies of the executive branch of state government acting in concert to achieve common goals. It is an approach that has merit.

Strong foundation

The approach to public safety should prove more useful than the narrowly targeted or geographically limited efforts in the past. While those sometimes produced meaningful results, they were difficult to replicate on a statewide basis. Haslam's multiyear program, if implemented in its entirety, should build a strong, long-lasting foundation for battling crime across the state.

Crime is a multifacted problem. As such, combating and dealing with its fallout should involve a multitude of departments and initiatives. Traditionally, though, major crime-fighting initiatives have involved law enforcement and security agencies. Parole and probation departments sometimes played a minor role, but other departments in state government -- mental health and children's services, for example -- that dealt directly and indirectly with the issue were rarely involved. The new plan changes that.

Already working

The decision to have every department affected by the crime issue to work together already is bearing fruit. The public safety working group has been productive. It has provided the governor -- and the state -- with 11 objectives and 40 action steps designed to reduce crime.

No one, of course, expects the plan to be implemented in its entirety in the near future. It is designed to work incrementally, building on individual program accomplishments to ultimately achieve a beneficial whole. That won't come quickly or easily.

Those in charge of implementing the governor's plan wisely have decided that approach is best. Rather than try to work on all segments of the plan at once, they want to implement about half of it immediately. They'll tackle the rest in coming months and years.

Tracking abusers

Initial efforts will include building a system that makes it easier to identify and prosecute prescription drug abusers, that consolidates tracking, management and supervision of individuals within the criminal justice and corrections systems, that addresses the growing surge in domestic abuse and that puts in place programs and legislation to reduce violent crimes, especially those that involve the use of fire arms and those committed by groups of individuals. Those are sensible goals that hold the promise of generating meaningful reductions in crime.

Tennessee, for example, currently has a substance monitoring database, but its use by prescribers and dispensers is voluntary. Proposed legislation requiring the use of the database before writing or filling a prescription for a controlled substance should slow the incidence of "doctor shopping" in search of multiple prescriptions. That, in turn, should reduce the number of deaths caused by accidental ingestion of prescription drugs, an increasing scourge in Tennessee.

Many ways to save

The savings realized by tighter controls on dispensing prescription drugs and tougher sentencing for those who abuse them could be significant. There are savings to be had in law enforcement costs, of course, but other agencies eventually could save millions as well. Currently, for example, the state spends millions a year to care for children who are removed from parental care because of drug-related issues.

Similar savings are available if the incidence of domestic violence is reduced. Legislation that escalates jail time and financial penalties for domestic assault offenders could save lives. Ditto for pending legislation that provides tougher sentences for repeat offenders previously convicted in cases in which they carried a firearm and for violent crimes committed by groups of three or more. The latter does not directly address the gang issue, but it is a step in the right direction since crimes committed by groups often are more violent than others. The proposed crime-reduction legislation should be approved.

Costs involved

The governor's plan does not come without costs. Some proposals, like one to combine programs currently operated by the Tennessee Department of Corrections and the Board of Probation of Control, hold the promise of both reduced cost and increased efficiency and effectiveness. Others could lead to greater costs for some counties, though state officials say the judicious use of grants and increases in state appropriations should minimize that in many circumstances. The truth, though, is that any statewide reduction in crime should produce savings by lowering the day-to-day costs of law enforcement and the treatment and care of those directly and indirectly affected by crime and abuse.

Truth is, it's difficult to assign a value to the peace of mind state residents will gain if Haslam's proposal is successful. What is certain, though, is that the civic, social and economic benefits of crime reduction are always significant. That's what the state's legislators, other elected officials and residents should bear in mind as the public safety action plan is put into effect.