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Jail costs need

deeper review

A preliminary report on 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 still-incomplete information released so far warrants that billing, but it certainly ought to raise eyebrows and prompt deep 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. This 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 their 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 is failing to charge enough to cover the expense of lodging these out-of-area inmates or juvenile offenders in Multnomah County facilities.

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

County's costs appear excessive

The numbers in the DA's preliminary report are eye-popping. But Shrunk 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 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 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

These initial observations ought to be of definite concern to commissioners and taxpayers. To complete this review in October, the county must fully determine whether its adult and juvenile corrections programs and facilities are operated out of line with common practices in other counties.

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

Other matters also cry out for evaluation, including whether Multnomah County has a moral and legal obligation to spend as much as it does on inmate health care. 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 of double-bunking and the risk it entails.

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