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Jail costs require a serious review

A preliminary report on the management of Multnomah County jails has uncovered practices and expenses that county Commissioner Lisa Naito finds 'shocking,' District Attorney Michael Schrunk calls 'startling' and Commissioner Lonnie Roberts labels 'astonishing.'

We are not sure that the information released so far warrants that billing, but it certainly ought to raise eyebrows and prompt discussion of the cost of housing inmates in Multnomah County.

At the request of county commissioners, Schrunk's office is looking into a number of jail-related issues. The investigation is being conducted in tandem with an annual grand jury review of corrections operations.

Two of Schrunk's deputy district attorneys reported back to their boss this week with preliminary conclusions. What they found is that Multnomah County appears to spend much more than other counties to house inmates, and that when providing space to other jurisdictions, the county fails to charge enough to cover the expense of lodging the out-of-area inmates or juvenile offenders in Multnomah County facilities.

Taken together, the higher costs of jail operations and failure to recoup the expenses from other jurisdictions could be squeezing Multnomah County taxpayers for millions of dollars and preventing the county from making more much-needed jail beds available.

County's costs appear excessive

The numbers in the district attorney's preliminary report are eye-popping. But Schrunk says there are mitigating factors that will be considered before drawing final conclusions about whether the county is overly wasteful in the area of corrections.

The report points to four areas in need of thorough review:

• The average daily jail-bed cost in Multnomah County is $158, compared with $117 in Seattle's King County, $90 in Clark County, Wash., and $62 in Washington County.

• Multnomah County has the most expensive inmate health-care services of any jurisdiction studied.

• The county annually spends $6 million more on housing prisoners for the state than it receives from the state in reimbursement.

• It costs Multnomah County $450 a day to house juvenile offenders for Washington and Clackamas counties, which is at least $200 a day more than those counties pay for the service.

The report also evaluated jail safety and concluded Multnomah County facilities are generally run in a secure fashion. However, it stated that a corrections deputy's excessive overtime could have contributed to a flawed decision in 2005 to move a violent inmate from a segregation cell. That inmate later murdered his cellmate.

If report holds true, changes needed

To complete the review in October, the county must determine whether its adult and juvenile corrections programs and facilities are operated out of line with common practices in other counties.

The analysis includes determining whether the cost comparisons are apple to apple, or if they are 'apples to elephants,' as Sheriff Bernie Giusto claims.

The issue of overtime and inmate safety is another concern. The grand jury and deputy district attorneys should examine not only employee fatigue, but also the court-approved practice ofdouble-bunking and the risk it entails.

If the final report arrives at conclusions similar to the district attorney's preliminary report, Multnomah County officials will have urgent decisions to make. They would include reining in excessive costs while also requiring other counties and the state to pay their fair share of the inmate costs.