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Oregon Sheriffs Face Decision On Who To Release Because of Jail Crowding February 8, 2009

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Counties across Oregon are dealing with jails hitting full capacity, forcing sheriffs to decide who stays and who’s released.

"The plumbing is backing up," said Wallowa County Sheriff Fred Steen. "I’ve got 10 people in jail right now – that’s over my bed allotment at the Union County Jail. I can matrix them out (release them) but the problem is you get these little dirt bags out and they go on a rampage."

Oregonians made it clear last November they don’t want criminals back on the street. More than 60 percent of voters approved Measure 57, which mandates jail time for a variety of drug and property crimes that might earlier have resulted in probation, rather than sentencing.

Measure 57 may affect jail bed-space as time goes on, but it has nothing to do with current problems, according to Wallowa County District Attorney Mona Kay Williams. There are two causes of the increase in inmates from Wallowa County, in her estimation. Firstly, there have been some serious crimes committed in the county and the suspects are in jail until their cases can come to court. Secondly, Williams is establishing consequences for parole and probation violations and sending violators off to serve their time when they repeatedly fail to fulfill their release obligations.

"In most misdemeanor cases, defendants are placed on probationary period of anywhere from 12 to 36 months – that’s what’s called a bench probation," she explained. "There’s no place they report or probation officer that checks on them (except in cases of domestic assault 4 or sexual abuse 3), it’s kind of a honor system. In the past, they had to do community service or enter into drug rehab and pay their fees. There was no enforcement of that and probations were running out with people not fulfilling their obligations. We’ve pushed to make sure those probationary provisions are enforced."

That was a change that has been welcomed, said Gary L. Gekeler, probation officer for the Union-Wallowa County Community Corrections Program. "You feel more of a reward doing my job when there are consequences for violators," he said.

Gekeler currently has 42 individuals on probation. Another dozen are on probation but have absconded. Both of those numbers are average, Gekeler said.

"We’re getting more and more sentenced people in," Steen said of the district attorney’s firm discipline. "I suspect the raise in numbers is due to a combination of things: probation violators being sentenced, the economy, and our number of sentenced individuals keeps going up."

In fact, the 10 people Steen has in jail right now are the most he has ever had at one time. "The highest we’ve had since I’ve been around was an average of 7.1 beds in use," he said. "In the past our daily fill rate has ebbed and flowed from three to five to 10 to two, but in the last few months our fill rate has been consistently high and that’s affecting Union County."

It is a real problem, according to Steen, the district attorney and the commissioners, and they are looking at solutions.

"Summer is usually the timeframe where we normally have more beds full," said Williams. "The fact that we’ve had our beds full through November to January is an indication that we need to do something. It certainly is an issue that needs to be resolved."

It is not just a problem for Wallowa County, according to Steen. "This is more of a regional problem," he said. "Rural counties just don’t have the money to operate their own jails. We’re constantly trying to watch our pennies around here. The Union County Sheriff’s Office and La Grande Police Department are feeling the pinch, too."

Interim Chief of Police Derick Reedington of La Grande confirmed that. "There’s just not enough bed space," he said. "We’ve issued some citations instead of jail-time. In today’s world it comes down to money."

Which jail?

Pinching pennies is what led to Wallowa County’s $146,000-per-year contract with the Union County Jail, and budgetary decisions were prime motivators in moves back and forth from various jail systems over the last decade. Wallowa County first moved from the Union County Jail to the Umatilla County Jail in 2001 and then from Umatilla back to the Union County Jail in July 2007. Both moves saved the county tens of thousands of dollars, Steen reported.

"When I took office in 2001 I looked at our contract budget with Union County and negotiated a cheaper contract with Umatilla county which saved us about $70-80,000 even with the extra transport costs," Steen said.

Then, in 2007, Wallowa County commissioners, the D.A. and the sheriff’s office re-examined issues and crunched numbers again.

"There had always been a concern of our circuit court judges and the defense bar that prisoners were too far away," Steen said. "About two years ago, Union County Sheriff Rasmussen approached me about the possibility of moving our contract back to Union County. We hammered out an agreement that provided us with a similar agreement to what we had in Umatilla County and it was a savings again. It was a small reduction in the daily rate and reduced transport costs by approximately $10,000 per year."

That savings may be wiped out by the increase in inmates housed and perhaps the possibility of going back to hauling them to Umatilla.

Transporting and jailing inmates in Union County is still the preferred solution. However, although the Union County Jail has a basement that could hold another 12 beds, and Wallowa County helped to construct those beds with its state and county funds in the mid-1990s, that space is currently occupied by the "Merit" Drug Task Force and conversion of the space would represent significant expense for Union County.

To justify the opening of or construction of more space, the Union County Jail would have to show a cost benefit. It currently has a budget of approximately $1.4 million, which covers everything from toilet paper to medical treatment for inmates to wages for guards and support staff. That money pays for the wages of 11 individuals, not counting reserve officers, who help out, or the as-needed work crew supervisor, according to Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen. Maximizing those corrections dollars, keeping the right people in prison, and creating accountability for scoff-laws guilty of repeat misdemeanor offenses, has gotten to be a delicate balancing act for the agencies that share the Union County Jail.

"We have to balance the safety of citizens against how many Wallowa County prisoners we take," said Rasmussen. "As of late we’ve been matrixing more inmates than usual. Our capacity is 36, and eight beds are guaranteed for Wallowa County. If Wallowa County needs to send us four more, and there is room for another four, we can take them. But we’re capped at 36 and we’ll have to work with that."

Wallowa County has 12 beds of its own in the three-year-old Wallowa County Justice Center, but those don’t look like a solution to the overflow right now, according to Steen. Law enforcement officers use those 12 beds to house prisoners up to 36 hours before transport or while waiting for court dates. Thanks to a "rural exception" and a design that divides inmates into two separate modules, Wallowa County can hold both juveniles and adult inmates for that time. However, in order for the county to use the facility as a residential jail a few modifications would have to be made, an exercise yard would have to be built, food and laundry services contracted, and a crew of four to six full-time employees would have to be hired.

"Financially, for this county, its much more sensible to contract the service out," Steen said. "Just to begin the process to operate this as a resident jail, not counting paychecks for employees, would be $80 to $100,000."

The older jail facility in the courthouse does not meet any state standards; it is an old brig from a ship that was installed in the courthouse in the early 1900s.

There is no shortage of beds in Umatilla County Jail, according to Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo, but those beds do not come free, either.

"It’s $55 per day," said Trumbo. "It goes up to $56 per day in July. We’ve got plenty of beds. If Wallowa County wants to bring them, we’ll take them. I told Sheriff Steen that if he wanted 15 beds, we’d give him 15 beds. Of course, transportation would be Wallowa County’s responsibility."



1. zoraida - February 12, 2009

So the Sheriff and the DOC can let people out of prison before their sentence is completed?

2. dirt bag - August 18, 2009

Dirt bags? Is that your professional opinion?