Crime Statistics & Wine Sediment
by Mark Scaramella, December 5, 2009
Drawing any conclusions from the state's Department of Justice statistics for Mendocino County and its semi-comparable neighboring counties requires the skills of an experienced and slightly inebriated tasseographer or oenomancer and an empty glass of unfiltered pinot or Earl Gray.
Unfortunately, we don't have any at hand so unraveling whatever Mendo's crime stats say about Mendocino County, if they say anything at all, will probably remain an unsolved mystery.
But that doesn't stop us from looking. After all, even the organization and breakdown of the County’s crime stats and inconclusive, dated, and limited information still may have some residual value.
One interesting crime statistic that cops track is the "clearance rate" -- the percentage of reported crimes where there's an arrest. Mendocino County's clearance rate for "violent crime" (homicide, forcible rape, robbery and aggravated assault) is comparable to neighboring counties (Napa, Lake, Humboldt) at about 50% through 2007. On the Northcoast, by far the most frequent violent crime is aggravated assault at 258 in Mendocino County in 2007. Of those, 59% (152) saw an arrest.
The stats don't say how many were actually convicted of aggravated assault, but overall Mendocino County saw only three felony acquittals in the year, so most of them probably were convicted of something. (Plea bargains are counted as convictions). The bulk of the assault arrests plead out (perhaps to a lesser charge) or were convicted at trial. The very low number of acquittals tells us that most of the time the person charged -- if anyone is arrested and charged -- is found guilty. There's nothing in the crime stats about how many of these arrests actually went to trial, but generally most cases don’t go to trial. The low number of acquittals also tells us that in cases where an arrest is made for an assault, it's pretty obvious who did it. But, under the low-hanging-fruit theory, you might consider 60% of aggravated assaults resulting in arrest pretty low considering that victims usually know who assaulted them. Are 40% of aggravated assault perps going unarrested? After all, these are just the ones that are reported to law enforcement; bar fights, for example, frequently don't get reported. Even if Mendo's clearance rate for such crimes is comparable to other counties, it's depressing to know that something like 40% of reported serious assault perps get away with it.
With all the emphasis on domestic violence you'd think that the State would compile the DV statistics but, no; nothing remotely meaningful is collected.
Like most rural counties, most thefts are successful. Only about 20% or so of reported thefts in Mendocino County lead to arrests. And again, most of those are because the victim knew the thief.
As a baseline, estimated adult populations of the four counties are Mendo 71,000, Lake 50,000, Humboldt 106,000 and Napa 104,000.
Mendocino County leads these four rural North Coast counties by far in the number of adults on felony probation at almost 1500 in 2007. Lake County had 642, Napa 1043, and Humboldt 1343. Per capita, Mendo is even further ahead.
Mendo also lead the four counties in marijuana felony arrests at 167 in 2007. (Lake 63, Humboldt 129, Napa 23.) From 1998 to 2004 Mendo's pot felony arrests were under 100 per year. But in 2006/7 it jumped to 173 and 167. Possible reasons for the 06/07 uptick include: Mendo’s former libertarian DA Norm Vroman died in summer of 2006; Current Sheriff Tom Allman was elected in late 2006;. Mendocino County had developed a reputation as a pot-friendly county by 2006 due to the earlier passage of Measure G in 2000 which depriortized personal use pot law enforcement; the low end of the country's pot growers mistakenly interpreted Measure G as legalization; or anti-pot backlash resulting in more and more smaller growers getting arrested, as opposed to larger grows getting busted but no one on hand to arrest. We don't know. Maybe all of the above. Although the 2008 and 2009 data are not yet available, the marijuana arrest numbers will surely go much further up.
Another interesting pattern that emerges is the Sheriff's staffing and budget. Sheriff Allman regularly points out that his Office has the same number of patrol deputies as it did when Richard Nixon was president in the early 70s, about 50. But according to the DOJ stats the Sheriff's Office went from 66 sworn officers in 1998 to 127 in 2007, almost double. Napa has 93. Humboldt had 164. Lake only 57. Certainly some of those are corrections officers, but it's hard to figure out what happened to all those new deputies if they didn't get added to the patrol contingent, as Allman implies. Further muddying this water is the Sheriff's Office expense info from the Department of Justice showing that expenses went from $11 million in 1998 to nearly $19 million in 2005/6. It’s now over $20 million, even with the latest budget cuts.
At the same time the number of prosecuting attorneys has been basically flat from 1998 to 2007 at about 18. Lake has 13 prosecutors, Napa 20 and Humboldt 16.
Mendo wins the judge staffing gold medal, even before factoring in population, with 8 judges (and a commissioner). Lake gets by with just 4 (and a commissioner). Humboldt has 7. Napa 6.
Mendo leads in probation officers which went from 66 in 1998 to 80 in 2007. Mendo also leads in sentences of felony probation with jail at 630 (generally driving under the influence). Lake reported only 5, but their report for that period must be incomplete. (Why the DOJ even posted it is unclear.) Humboldt reported 476; Napa 371.
One final stat worth mentioning is dispositions. In round numbers, Mendocino County made about 1800 serious crime arrests in 2007. Of those around 1550 were sent to the District Attorney for charging ("complaints"). Almost 500 of the 1550 were dismissed for one reason or another. Of the approximately 1000 cases where charges were filed, all but three were acquitted. The rest resulted in pleas or convictions.
Again, Lake County's stats were obviously truncated and not worth mentioning. But Humboldt's disposition round numbers were: 2000 arrests, 1400 complaints; 250 dismissed; 1100 convicted, 3 acquitted. Napa's were: 1200 arrests, 900 complaints, 150 dismissed; 700 convicted, 3 acquitted.
Overall, crime is down in California through 2007. It will be interesting to see how the stats look through 2009 as the recession worsens. According to the academics, most rural crime occurs at home and the perp is either related or known to the victim. Guns tend to be less involved in rural crime. Rural break-ins and robberies generally involve the use of force less frequently than in urban or suburban areas.
The State does not collect complete crime stats; misdemeanors and general jail incarceration rates for which crimes are not tracked. Anyone who watches the Sheriff's booking logs regularly will notice that most of the "crimes" people are arrested for in Mendocino County are not that serious: disorderly conduct; under the influence/possession of drugs; drunk driving (which may be serious, but usually the arrests don't involve any injury or property damage); and, of course, marijuana. Mendocino reported something like 18,000 arrests last year but less than 2,000 of those were considered serious crimes.
Since most of Mendocino County lives in relatively remote areas with police response times frequently more than an hour, residents should consider themselves lucky that Mendo crime is generally not that serious. Sheriff Allman said recently that these days, with low budgets and lower staffing, residents should exercise their Second Amendment rights and carry a gun for self-protection if they feel the need. Whether the statistics bear out that need, however, is beyond the ability of your average wine-sediment analyst.