Government seems to attract more than its share of idealists. This is a positive thing. We want our elected officials to aim high and strive to accomplish positive results for all of us.
But idealism alone doesn’t cut it. There are certain real world limitations which idealism must confront. There is one that is pretty much universal: “There is no such thing as a free lunch.”
I have the privilege of serving as your Sheriff. And that privilege brings obligations and responsibilities. I see it as my responsibility to respect and uphold the law, to the best of my ability. In the United States and the State of Washington, the law is defined by legislation and by court rulings.
Legislation can and often does direct that my department takes on new programs or adopts specific procedures or practices. There are times when these directives make good sense to me and there are times when they do not. But it is my responsibility to implement what the legislature and, ultimately, what Court decisions direct.
I often support the intent of legislation aimed at improving public safety and I want to see them succeed. The difficult part comes in implementing the laws that the legislature passes. Laws do not implement or enforce themselves.
When a directive comes with no resources, it falls to us to re-prioritize what we are already doing. I am often required to cut back on things the Department is already doing in order to do the new, legally-required things the legislature wants us to do.
What is wrong with this picture? You and I can figure it out in a heartbeat. More things to do with no more resources means something has to give. Even while working smarter, with reduced staffing over the past several years, a specific legislative directive to do one thing usually means that we will need to stop doing something else.
Examples of unfunded mandates include increased monitoring of serious sex offenders, requiring the collection of DNA samples for serious violent offenders and mandatory jail booking for drunk drivers on the repeat offenses. Are these good ideas? You bet. I like these ideas. They represent a willingness to support community safety and I applaud this mindset.
But there is just one problem: they came with no funding. In a rush to implement good and worthy ideas, legislators can forget that all these things involve costs. And meeting the costs of these unfunded mandates has caused our existing resources to be spread thinner and thinner. All the while, the public wonders why we can’t do more of “the basics” that they expect from law enforcement. Specific unfunded mandates can get in the way of our overall general obligation to provide public safety services.
What is the fix for this? First we need to recognize that anything worth doing is worth doing right. Any law worth passing is worth paying for. There is no such thing as a free sex offender registration program or a free approach to jailing drunk drivers.
We need to remind legislators that translating legislation into action takes time and resources. Decisions to write checks on my Department’s account means fewer resources to do other things including things like day-to-day property crime enforcement.
There are some basic truths that apply universally in the real world. Foremost among them is this: there is no such thing as a free lunch. It is a simple caution that should guide our state legislators as they go to Olympia this month. Lunch is certainly not free when local law enforcement is forced to foot the bill.