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Sheriff Cuts 84 Jail Beds July 8, 2011

Posted by FairSentencing in : Current News , trackback

Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner on Thursday announced that he will immediately close 84 beds in the Lane County Jail, saying the move illustrates the severity of the county’s fiscal predicament.

But his decision surprised members of the Lane County Board of Commissioners, some of whom criticized Turner for failing to consult the board or the public.

Facing the need to save $3.2 million in public safety costs for the fiscal year that began Friday, Turner held a news conference in the sheriff’s office to announce a series of cuts and impacts that include:

Eliminating 52 positions, including deputies necessary to operate and supervise an 84-bed dormitory housing unit in the jail, and 27 positions for food and medical service to inmates.

Loss of 24-hour coverage.

An inability to respond to “any but the most serious property and financial crimes.”

More instances where citizens will “self-report” crimes by filling out a form, including most property crimes.

With 321 beds remaining in the jail after the cut, the sheriff’s office will respond to situations that pose a threat to personal safety; “felony grade” crimes; and situations where a response is required by law, including some domestic violence incidents, the victimization of children and Measure 11 crimes, a reference to crimes for which Oregon voters have adopted mandatory minimum sentences, Turner said.

“While the sheriff’s office will always respond to emergencies and 911 calls, there may be times when a responding deputy has to be called out from home, as opposed to being on patrol,” Turner said.

The county board cut $7.8 million from the general fund for the 2011-12 fiscal year, including $3.8 million that is to be saved primarily through a combination of workforce-wide wage and benefit reductions and furloughs.

But Turner described as “pie in the sky” the plan to quickly win union concessions in compensation and said coming up with his department’s share of the necessary savings left him with no choice but to cut the jail beds. The bed closures will save his department $700,000 in the fiscal year that started July 1.

Board of Commissioners chairman Faye Stewart said the closure of the jail beds has been a distinct possibility but that he was “a little surprised” Turner made the cut without officially notifying the board. Stewart said he doesn’t know whether the action can be reversed but that he hopes during a board meeting on Tuesday to discuss with Turner whether other cuts would be a better option.

Commissioners Rob Handy and Pete Sorenson were more critical.

“I’m not OK with it at all,” Handy said. “I look forward to us meeting as a board and getting a briefing on this and making sure everyone has the same information.”

Former Sheriff Russ Burger closed 84 jail beds in 2008 because of an unexpected drop in federal inmates and the federal money to house them. The county board reopened them a year later, but only after months of fierce, community-wide debate over spending money on public safety vs. saving money to maintain county government’s long-term fiscal stability.

Sorenson made a passionate argument against immediately restoring the jail beds at that time, saying the county faced an “unparalleled” economic crisis. But he ultimately joined in the board’s unanimous decision to reopen the jail beds after what he called an extensive period of hearings and public comment.

On Thursday, Sorenson said the issue of jail-bed closures merits board review.

“I think this is a pretty big community issue, and I think it needs to undergo some discussion and consideration,” Sorenson said. “I don’t think it should be made by one person.”

The county is in contact with its seven unions on concessions in wages and benefits but officials have said that even under a best-case scenario it will take time to persuade the groups to accept changes. In the meantime, employees could be required to start taking furloughs — periodic unpaid days off — in August.

Turner said he’s not going to get concessions from the union for sheriff’s deputies and that the deeper into the fiscal year he goes with the current level of services, the more he’ll have to cut later.

Commissioner Jay Bozievich, who said he supports Turner’s move, noted that the 24-hour nature of law enforcement makes furloughs unrealistic, leaving only the option of layoffs and closure of jail beds.

Les Sieczkowski, union president of the Lane County Peace Officers Association, did not return a call seeking comment Thursday evening.

The closure of the 84-bed unit will reduce capacity in the jail by 20 percent, which means another 750 offenders will join the thousands who are released early each year, Turner said.

“These releases may include offenders defined by statute as violent, and possibly a small number of Measure 11 offenders,” Turner said. Measure 11 offenses include murder, assault, manslaughter, kidnapping, rape, robbery, sexual abuse, arson and more.

District Attorney Alex Gardner said in an e-mail Thursday that many criminal defendants already choose to skip court dates in Lane County and that closure of the jail beds could exacerbate the problem.

“If the court orders have no teeth, offenders feel free to disregard them — and they do,” Gardner wrote. “We routinely see defendants who have been arrested four or five times on the same felony charge.”

The sheriff’s office also will cut three positions for parole and probation officers and two support staff, which means that the department will no longer be able to accept for supervision most people convicted of misdemeanor crimes.

While the department will continue to supervise people convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence crimes, Turner said in a press statement, “the status of almost 200 other offenders currently on misdemeanor probation has not yet been determined.”

“It seems unlikely that we will be in a position to continue their supervision as originally planned by the courts,” Turner said.

Bozievich said he wants to revisit earlier proposals for reductions instead of the jail bed closure. That list of cuts could include elimination of two positions in the District Attorney’s Office, funding to Health and Human Services and the Pathways program for juvenile offenders, for a savings of more than $1 million.

Turner said the ultimate solution for his department is voter approval of a tax levy or taxing district that will pay for fundamental public safety services — and nothing else. The bleakness of the current financial picture might be enough to sway the public, he added.

“I like the plainness of this,” Turner said. “There just isn’t any money.”



1. cary lundgren - September 17, 2011

Right on! someones doing the right thing!