Last month, the Clackamas County Sheriff's Office was forced to release more than 400 suspects from custody before their day in court, while 84 jail beds stood empty for want of deputies to secure them.
by: patrick sherman, One of 84 beds that stands empty in the Clackamas County Jail, while a dozen inmates a day are released for want of the space to hold them.

'It varies, but in a typical month, we have to let between 400 and 500 people go,' said Sergeant Lee Eby at the Clackamas County Jail. 'It depends on the month, and how active the criminals are. Before we let them go, we make them sign a recognizance agreement that says when they are supposed to appear in court, but to a lot of them, it's like a joke - they are laughing in the face of the system.'

According to Sheriff Craig Roberts, the need for inmate population control, which means turning a dozen or more prisoners loose each day, is the result of long-term demographic shifts in the community.

'The most important thing to understand is that this did not happen overnight,' he said. 'It's been building up over a period of years because we haven't been able to keep pace with the growth of the county. Clackamas County is growing very rapidly, and that has had a big impact on the sheriff's office, and that includes the jail.'

Oregon counties maintain an average of 2.3 jail beds per 1,000 people. Nationwide, the average is a bit higher - 2.5 beds per 1,000. In Clackamas County, the jail has less than one bed per 1,000 residents.

'One comes in the front door, one has to go out the back,' said Roberts. 'It's really hard to see those offenders walk out the door - it's a public safety crisis.'

A balancing act

In an effort to minimize that crisis, deputies examine the criminal history of each inmate before deciding who to release.

'It's about keeping the worst ones in jail,' said Eby. 'The criteria we use when we are deciding who to let go are the crime that they are currently charged with, their past criminal history and their use of drugs and alcohol. We ask a lot of questions.'

Roberts explained, 'We look at whether they have committed a person-crime or a non-person crime. We let people who are charged with identity theft and auto theft go before people who are accused of assault, or rape, or child abuse.

'It's an incredibly difficult balancing act.'

The jail has a total capacity of 434 beds, although only 350 are available for inmates because the sheriff's office does not have enough deputies to keep the facility adequately staffed - meaning 84 beds go unused.

'Those empty beds have a direct impact on our ability to do our job,' said Roberts. 'We have reports from several outside, independent auditors - including the National Institute of Corrections and our own Blue Ribbon Commission - clearly state that it is imperative that we get those beds open.'

That would be the outcome if voters pass Measure 3-246 this November. It would authorize a five-year local option tax to hire 30 new corrections deputies to fully staff the jail, as well as 19 additional patrol deputies, to reduce response times across the county.

Cost savings

Roberts explained that the decision to seek a tax increase came after implementing a series of cost-saving measures.

'One of the big issues that I've been working on is how do we reduce overtime,' he said. 'You have to have somebody at each post in the jail, and as the staff gets smaller and smaller, that means you end up having to pay more and more overtime.

'When I took over, we had people working 100 overtime shifts a week. In all good conscience, we have to do better than that for the taxpayers.'

To reduce overtime, the sheriff reviewed all of the different jobs at the jail and identified those that could be filled by civilian staff, rather than sworn deputies.

'Training a deputy is a huge investment,' he said. 'I can put a non-sworn person to work almost immediately, and that's a big savings. As a result, the overtime shifts have been substantially reduced - we're down to maybe 20 a week now.'

The sheriff also reduced the jail's food services staff, relying more on pre-made meals and has negotiated deals with pharmaceutical companies to reduce the cost of medicating inmates.

The first step

Even if the ballot measure passes and the 84 shuttered beds come back on line, Clackamas County will still lag behind other Oregon counties and the nation as a whole in available jail space.

'This is just the first step in the direction that we want to go,' Roberts said. 'The longer-term plan is to see what the county can do with the general fund to help us expand the jail.'

These are necessary steps to insure public safety, according to Sergeant Eby.

'The jail is the lynchpin of the whole criminal justice system,' he said. 'If we let people go here, that slows down the courts and puts more of a burden on the patrol officers, who have to respond to crimes committed by people who should be in jail.

'We have a very high recidivism rate among the people we let out of here. I've actually seen people I released one night come back in the next day. I'm sure that every deputy here could tell you a story like that.'

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