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Old 06-27-2005, 11:58 AM
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Default Multnomah County can stop the revolving door at jail if it chooses

County can stop the revolving door at jail if it chooses

Multnomah County, rather than quit an underfunded state program, pays a price for releasing thousands of its inmates early
Sunday, June 26, 2005 ASHBEL S. GREEN
The Oregonian

Multnomah County last year booked and released early more than 3,400 accused criminals and sentenced inmates because of jail overcrowding.

There was another option.

Under a 1995 Oregon law, the state pays counties to incarcerate inmates serving less than a year and to supervise felons on probation and parole. The law, Senate Bill 1145, contained a clause allowing counties to "opt out" if the state didn't provide enough money to do the job.

The current two-year budget includes $184 million for the program, but the state initially held back $9 million in case tax revenues fell short. That decision allowed counties to opt out.

Multnomah -- like most counties -- didn't. But more than any county, Multnomah paid a steep price.

Even before holding back the $9 million, the state wasn't coming close to covering costs of running jails and supervising felons in urban counties such as Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington.

As a result, those counties had to backfill the state program with local tax dollars that otherwise would have covered their own jail needs.

Multnomah County Sheriff Bernie Giusto ponied up an extra $3.4 million in county funds last year to house state inmates, money that could have opened more than 100 beds for local criminals now getting out early.

The county paid an additional $18 million to supervise and treat more than 7,000 felons on probation and parole.

Multnomah County's total subsidy nearly matched the $24 million the state paid it to do the job.

County Chairwoman Diane Linn acknowledged that opting out would have freed up needed jail beds. But Linn said she thinks county residents are safer if paroled felons are "under the supervision and accountability that we provide locally."

Giusto didn't push for opting out either, and agrees with Linn that the county should supervise felons on probation and parole. Instead, he has asked commissioners for more money to open jail beds, which they have refused.

Faced with shrinking state and county revenues, Linn and Giusto say it may be time to take another look at opting out of SB1145.

There's no doubt about it, said Maggie Miller, executive director of the Citizens Crime Commission of Portland.

"I think the state has abdicated their responsibility," she said. "If they're not going to keep their agreement with all the counties, I think (Multnomah County) should consider opting out."

If Multnomah County opted out, it would return responsibility for jailing state inmates and supervising felons on probation and parole to state control. That would not change the cost to taxpayers. State officials say they would do their best with an estimated $20 million in state funds that Multnomah County is set to get next year.

Opting out wouldn't just give the county more jail beds and slow down early releases. It also could help open Wapato Jail, the new $59 million 525-bed facility that sits empty because of a lack of funds.

The county wouldn't need the jail any more. The state would need a place to house the 300 inmates currently serving their sentences in county jails.

The "matrix"

Billy Joe Hammond knows all about the county jail's revolving door. Hammond, 23, has been arrested 41 times since he was 14, but has spent little time in jail.

On the morning of Feb. 20, Hammond walked the perimeter of Southeast Portland's Laurelhurst Park, scanning the well-trimmed streetscape for empty driveways and darkened houses.

Hammond, a convicted burglar, craved a hit of methamphetamine. He needed to get his hands on a camera, a computer -- anything he could trade for dope.

He crossed Southeast Ankeny Street and jogged up the front steps of a brick ranch house. Trying to look like he was a friend of the owner's, Hammond casually knocked on the front door. He tried the doorknob. Locked.

Hammond pushed through some bushes into the backyard, where he squeezed through the bars of an unlocked basement window and slid into the house.

"As soon as my feet hit the floor, the alarm went crazy and all the lights started coming on," Hammond said in a recent interview.

Rattled, Hammond said he grabbed a laptop computer from a desk, found the front door and bolted across the street, into the park.

Several months passed before Hammond learned whose house he'd ripped off: County Commissioner Lisa Naito.

"I don't want to say it was a good thing it was her house," Hammond said. "Well, wait. Yeah, maybe it was a good thing it was her house. It should open her eyes."

Naito voted for SB1145 as a legislator and was involved in the discussion about pulling out as a commissioner. On Friday, she agreed that it's time consider the option again, not because her home was burglarized but because dwindling jail space threatens public safety.

There are a lot of people in Multnomah County like Hammond -- habitual addicts and bandits. The cops take them into the Justice Center's underground tunnel for booking -- and run into many of them on the street a few days later.

Without enough jail beds, the county can't hold everyone. So, sheriff's deputies regularly release, or "matrix," those they consider the least dangerous.

Last year, 3,395 offenders were let out early, compared with 1,228 in 2003. Sheriff's officials predict early releases will top 5,000 this year.

Hammond's latest burglary binge came to an end in May, when police found him hiding in the bathroom of a friend's Southeast Portland house and took him in for questioning.

"First time I've spent more than a month in jail," he said.

The big idea

If there's one person who can say, "I told you so," it's Dan Noelle.

In retirement, Noelle makes furniture in the basement of his West Hills home. But the former sheriff keeps an eye on the county's plight, and he's not surprised what he sees: Small-time crooks running wild while nearly 1,000 jail beds sit empty. Meanwhile, the county last year pumped nearly $22 million in local revenues to cover what SB1145 doesn't.

"This is exactly what I talked about happening from the very beginning," he said.

When the 1995 Oregon Legislature took up a bill to revamp the probation and post-prison supervision system, Noelle was one of the most vocal critics.

At the time, supporters said both the state and the counties would come out winners. The counties could do a better job of monitoring felons living in their communities. The state could avoid building a new prison.

Noelle complained that the state paid counties the same amount of money per felon, even though labor costs are much higher in Multnomah and other large counties. Noelle also predicted that the state would not provide enough money overall, forcing counties to spend their own tax revenues.

In Multnomah County's case, Noelle was correct on both counts.

The state pays counties based on a cost of $81 a day to hold an inmate in jail. Giusto says it costs Multnomah County $113 a day to hold an inmate. So Giusto uses local revenues to make up the difference.

After SB1145 passed in 1995, Multnomah County spent millions a year to incarcerate state inmates, but it was overlooked because a booming economy and state grants allowed the county to go on a jail-building spree.

By 1999, Noelle ran 2,073 jail beds. Almost no one was released early.

But starting in 2001, revenue shortfalls led to jail closures. When Wapato Jail was completed last year, the county had no idea how to come up with the $14 million to $21 million a year Giusto says he needs to operate it.

Because of jail-bed closures, Giusto now has 1,579 jail beds available. And future funding looks bad.

Multnomah County, which received $58.2 million from the state in 1999-2001, would get $43 million under the highest proposal before the Legislature.

Stay in jail card

Linn County Chairman Roger Nyquist remembers feeling a sense of disbelief while watching a recent television report on inmates getting matrixed in Multnomah County.

"I couldn't believe they weren't talking about opting out of 1145," Nyquist said.

Linn County opted out last year, and officials there have no second thoughts. The state took over probation and post-prison supervision, converting county employees to state employees. The only obvious difference is who signs their checks, Nyquist said.

And the state rents Linn County's jail space, which allows the county to keep its 230-bed facility open.

Then there's the icing on the cake: Opting out saved Linn County at least $800,000 a year.

"As it relates to public safety and the fiscal issues, we're better off than we were," Nyquist said. "It's not even a close call."

Douglas County officials said they don't know how much money they saved pulling out of the state program. But the state now rents space in the Douglas County Jail, allowing county officials to keep the entire 279-bed facility open. That, they say, means when you get booked or sentenced to jail in Douglas County, you stay there.

"We don't matrix," said Lt. Roger Loomis, Douglas County's jail commander.

Noelle, who urged the commissioners to opt out when he was sheriff, said the public safety crisis in Multnomah County now demands it.

"There is no doubt in my mind that the county should have opted out before, and can still opt out now," Noelle said.

The 2005 Legislature will clarify whether counties get another chance.

Senate Democrats' budget proposal -- $182 million -- probably would trigger the opt-out clause for counties statewide. The House Republican budget provides $190 million, an amount corrections officials claim would keep counties in the program.

Paul Snyder, top lawyer for the Association of Oregon Counties, says counties have a strong legal case under either proposal. Funding under SB1145, he says, is supposed to support "current service levels," a budget-writing phrase that includes increases for labor costs, and medical and retirement increases.

But state funding has not lived up to that promise, Snyder says, opening the door to a lawsuit.

Free crime zone

In jail, prisoners pass the time by talking about the matrix.

Hammond says he has seen inmates gather around a table as though they're playing a game of craps, wagering on whether their matrix score will be low enough to make the nightly cut.

"It's all in and out, in and out, in and out, no big deal for a lot of people," he said.

"It's a crime school in here," he said. "People are teaching each other how to do crimes. I've already talked to plenty of guys who are waiting for early release so they can hustle it up again."

Hammond says he is not interested in getting out of jail. For him, the city's availability of meth and the jail's revolving door add up to the ultimate temptation.

He said he was amazed that he spent only 30 days in jail for a January burglary conviction.

"I wasn't even across the Hawthorne Bridge," Hammond said, "and I hooked up with dope and was out committing crime again."

Ashbel "Tony" Green: 503-221-8202; tonygreen@news.oregonian.com Joseph Rose: 503-221-8029; josephrose@news.oregonian.com

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