The New Era - All about Sweet Home since 1929

Exclusion idea has pluses, but it's tricky


October 16, 2019

We don’t entirely disagree with people who say downtown should be off-limits to people who make public nuisances of themselves there.

It’s tricky, though, as has become evident, to figure out how to do it.

We’re leery of cutting off citizen access to public areas, and we are in sympathy with some city councilors’ concerns on that front. We hear the concerns of those who are worried about pushing those who are chronic problems out of the downtown business area and into residential areas. We also hear those who say it would be difficult to enforce such a law.

So let’s take these ideas one at a time.

First, we all have a right to use the public right-of-way. We believe that right should not be abridged by the mere accusation of a crime – no matter how well-founded and obvious.

In general, innocence should be presumed until guilt is proven in court. That concept is deeply enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.

That ordinances like this are surviving court challenges does not mean those are good decisions. We should set an example and require conviction prior to issuing an exclusion notice. Sure, it’s not as expedient. We could certainly expedite justice well if we allowed our police officers to judge offenders and impose sentences on the spot.

We don’t because we want to ensure, as a society, that those deemed guilty are truly guilty before we impose punishment for offenses. Why should this be any different?

In contrast, we think the general argument for trespassing someone from a public building, such as City Hall or school buildings makes sense as long as the offenders can still access the services they must, such as paying water bills or attending alternative school programs.

The parks exclusion ordinance is less of a concern because parks aren’t a necessity of life. In a way, they are a privilege afforded to people who behave decently in public.

It makes sense to trespass folks from buildings and parks, based on behavior that isn’t illegal but becomes a public nuisance.

The roadways, sidewalks and public spaces around our businesses are different. We cannot live at some level without accessing them, and banning anyone from them should require proof in court.

However, while we hear an argument about how this will hurt the homeless and we are sympathetic with the homeless, the homeless do not have a special right to commit offenses on public rights-of-way either. Just like the rest of use, they need to follow the law.

Using this ordinance to address problems caused by homeless people does present some concerns, though. They have nowhere to go – few, if any options.

This is a separate issue the community needs to address. Bad public policy, which we will not address in this editorial, inflates the number of homeless, forcing the community to respond to their needs, which are genuine.

Another concern that’s been voiced frequently during the discussion has been that banning criminal offenders might simply push them into the residential areas. Of course, some are already there. Not all of the offenders downtown live in doorways.

And sure, pushing them out of downtown can make the problem bigger, but we suspect that it may not.

Based on the anecdotal evidence in the weekly Public Safety log, it’s pretty apparent that the area with the most concentrated impact by lawbreakers is the downtown.

The proposed ordinance could be modified to create multiple exclusion zones throughout the city, covering the entire city. An offender who quits stealing from Safeway and Thriftway might move on to burglary out in the residential areas, but he or she could certainly be banished from additional areas where they choose to offend.

Conceivably, they could be pushed all the way out of town, but they would really need to work at it. By that point, they really haven’t been “kicked out” of town, which would raise constitutional issues. If they manage to exclude themselves from every region of the city, they’ve had to do a lot to kick themselves out of town – and out of the public’s hair.

As far as difficulty enforcing this proposed ordinance, which offender is excluded from where is a fairly simple record that can be tracked by officers as they make contact with them on their patrols, the same way driving records and trespass warnings are already tracked. And that raises another good point that’s already been made in the conversation: Even if an offender is excluded, if he or she behaves, he or she may never run afoul of the cops, even if they are where they’re not supposed to be. A lot of this is common sense.

Laws can only go so far. This one could be enforced just as well as any others, which is to say offenders are often just cited and released. That’s not a problem. We don’t repeal third-degree theft, shoplifting, from state law because enforcement is hard and thieves are cited and released and then cited and released again when they fail to appear or fail to comply with the law against stealing.

The law exists. What often doesn’t exist is the will of the justice system – separate from police officers – or resources. We often end up not really enforcing the laws against the people who don’t really care if they’re caught.

Perhaps what’s needed is to put some real teeth into enforcement against minor crimes, such as criminal trespass and third-degree theft.

The bottom line isn’t that this ordinance is unenforceable. It’s that our enforcement system, in general, is often weak despite the fact so many people, per capita, find themselves trapped in it.

Again, the exclusion ordinance may be worth a try on the condition that it hinges on conviction, and possibly with multiple zones. And the will to enforce it has to be there, though there should be room for a common-sense approach as well. As long as Bonnie and Clyde are behaving, maybe we should look the other way.

To ease concerns, the ordinance should include a sunset clause or require an extension to continue it after a limited period.

As an aside, we’re very happy about the council’s concerns, the reasoning and the time the councilors are taking to discuss this. They all have the right concerns and solid arguments.

The effort by councilors and city staff in discussing and crafting this ordinance should be appreciated by the citizens of Sweet Home, no matter which side we’re on.


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