BACK STORY - Partnership ideas for Wapato beds survive, though talks have stalled
by: KYLE GREEN, The still-unoccupied cells at Wapato jail have changed little since they were under contruction two and a half years ago. So far, Boy Scouts — not inmates — are the only group to have stayed overnight there.

On the surface, little has changed. Elected officials still blame and bicker, defensively sloughing off the slightest idea that the debacle that is the big and never opened $58 million jail in North Portland may be in any way their fault.

But beneath the surface, two of the three main ideas for how to open the 525-bed Wapato facility have become favored, with officials believing they are the most realistic option to open a jail completed more than two years ago but for which operation funds never have been secured.

The first idea is a partnership between Multnomah and one of two adjacent counties. The other is a partnership with the state Department of Corrections with the blessing and guidance of the Oregon Legislature.

At one time or another in the past year, officials have had fairly extensive talks toward achieving one or the other of these options. In each instance, the talks failed, though the ideas behind them did not die and are still on the table.

'The biggest hurdles are political,' Multnomah County District Attorney Michael Schrunk said. 'The ideas are ones we've known about, they're solid, and money is a major issue. But if the personalities would just get out of the way, we've got some good options we could move on pretty quickly.'

Technically, all ideas that have been on the table remain there, as stakeholders cautiously say they are open to listening to all options and everyone's opinion. But those same stakeholders - from the sheriff to the district attorney to the chairman-elect of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners - have their own opinions on what is the best path.

They said they feel a gathering critical mass that they believe actually could result in Wapato opening its doors to more than a sleepover of Boy Scouts - to date the only group that's spent a full night there.

At issue is more than one unopened jail. Without it in operation, Multnomah County faces a shortage of jail beds that forced the early release of 4,980 inmates in 2005.

A third idea that has gotten comparatively little traction, however, is Sheriff Bernie Giusto's most recent, to rent out the 1,014-bed Inverness jail to a private contractor, who would fill it with overflow inmates from states such as California and Arizona.

In return, the contractor would help finance Wapato's opening and an expansion by at least 1,000 beds, giving the county a net gain of about 500.

Outgoing county commission Chairwoman Diane Linn said she had a fundamental philosophical problem with allowing a for-profit company to provide for the health and well-being of inmates.

Commissioners said in interviews they had little stomach for a lengthy, expensive study to determine the proposal's viability.

Neighbors of the Northeast Portland jail are even less fond of the idea.

'Oh please,' said Bonny McKnight, co-chairwoman of the Russell Neighborhood Association. 'On what level imaginable would I think that's a good idea?'

Many prefer partnership

Along with Giusto and commission Chairman-elect Ted Wheeler, Schrunk said he believes that reviving the idea for a regional partnership is the best option for Multnomah County. Money and inmates could come from Clark County and perhaps from Clackamas County, defraying the $20 million cost of opening Wapato.

Linn said a Clark County partnership was on the table during this year's county budget process and would have made some of Wapato's beds available in early 2007.

'We had the beds and they had the money,' she said. 'But (Clark County) didn't want to open the first bed.'

And other commissioners voted against opening a portion of Wapato for what was on paper a short-term commitment.

This is where things get murky. And ugly. And familiar.

Linn said other commissioners voted against the measure to undermine her leadership and 'embarrass' her.

Commissioner Maria Rojo de Steffey, who favors the involvement of the state Department of Corrections, said the commissioners lacked the 'leadership' to make the deal happen and said Linn failed to provide it. She also said that Giusto could not be fully trusted to manage the financial accounting of the facility or of such a partnership.

Giusto said he had gotten little to no support from commissioners for the ideas his office generates.

'Every single idea that's out there about opening that place came from us,' he said.

Outgoing state Rep. Gary Hansen, D-Portland, who worked to get the Department of Corrections involved with Wapato and lost a primary election this year to win a seat on the Multnomah County commission, said the county's infighting helped prevent a deal.

'With the turmoil on and around the board of commissioners, it wasn't possible to get solid answers,' Hansen said.

Wheeler said he had seen quite enough already.

'The arguments that 'it's not my fault' just don't fly with me,' he said. 'I won't have it. I don't care whose fault it is, I'm taking ownership of the problem and working to fix it.'

More beds appeal to counties

Wheeler, who takes office next month, said he had a personal deadline of 2008 to open Wapato.

Tops on his jail agenda are getting a deeper understanding of the sheriff's corrections budget, management of which was the subject of a searing district attorney's office report last month, and understanding the county's fiscal reality.

Wheeler said he expects a minimum county budget shortfall of $14 million, which might climb as high as $30 million.

'It's simply unrealistic to assume that the county could afford to open 500 beds at once,' he said.

He acknowledged that a multicounty partnership is the best idea to him, calling 'innovative' the vision he has discussed informally with Clark County officials that would include treatment options for inmates as well as jail beds. He declined to give details.

Marc Boldt, chairman of Clark County's board of commissioners, said he remained very interested in renting Wapato beds for his own inmates and had spoken with Wheeler about the matter but awaited a legal opinion from the state of Washington before proceeding further.

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said the potential costs were still prohibitive for him to be a primary partner. But his need for jail beds is dire -84 of his 350 are closed for lack of funding, and he has a projected need of 1,356 by 2010 - and as a third partner he is interested.

'Is the door closed?' Roberts asked. 'I'd say absolutely no.'

Another concern of his is mental-health treatment, and whether he would have to split his county's health experts between his own facilities and Wapato.

Treatment may add flexibility

Treatment of a different sort was the centerpiece of the discussions Linn and Schrunk had with legislators and state corrections Director Max Williams.

Hansen said a plan would have targeted repeat drug offenders facing sentences of between 13 and 19 months, who instead of prison would go to Wapato for six months of treatment, with some of their criminal charges suspended.

These are among the most expensive inmates for the state to house, Hansen said, because they require constant medical care and come through the system so often.

Such a plan also would give Schrunk flexibility in the sentences he pursued and in the charges he filed.

'In one of my conversations with Mike, he said he felt that there were 700 inmates who would be better served by this kind of treatment option,' Hansen said.

The plan would have been funded from the savings the state gained in not having to feed, house, protect and rehabilitate those offenders.

'If the state is saving $70 a day for 18 months on each of these inmates, that is a considerable chunk of change we could have spent on a treatment option at Wapato while still saving money,' Hansen said.

Indeed, it would mean a savings of $37,800 per inmate every 18 months under that calculation, which could then be redistributed.

But there were questions about who would ultimately run the facility, and how.

Giusto and the corrections union have shown no willingness to consider anyone but Multnomah County sheriff's office personnel to run Wapato.

Williams did not return a phone call seeking comment.

In addition, the state's new 1,240-bed Madras prison opens next year, meaning the state might not have the need it once had to find places for its inmates.

'One other thing that I think has to be noted,' Hansen said, 'is that I don't think there's a champion for this idea in the Legislature anymore. We might have missed our window. We'd have to get the whole conversation restarted. But I think there is a sense that something could still get done on this. Someone just has to make it happen.'

Neighbor reduces releases

In the meantime, perhaps Washington County offers an instructive example. Sheriff Rob Gordon has no interest in sending his money and inmates to Wapato, preferring to plan long-term for his own facilities.

'It's forced me to focus on where the inefficiencies in our existing system are,' he said.

His staff met with the Washington County district attorney's office and with judges to work out a plan that has helped reduce forced early inmate releases from 4,000 in 2005 to 800 so far in 2006.

They delayed the forced releases until after arraignments, forcing inmates to post bail rather than walk free for free. Making bail payments got the courts involved more directly in encouraging the freed inmate to show up for hearings. But those hearings also were scheduled closer together, leaving less likelihood that people would forget to show up. That, in turn, meant fewer warrants for arrest on a charge of failure to appear.

The number of fresh warrants issued in Washington County per month dropped by nearly a third in response, Gordon said, from 650 to 450.

'The best part is, all of that was free,' Gordon said. 'It was just people getting together and talking and working out the problems in the system. I don't know if that would work in Multnomah County. I don't know if enough people are talking to each other.'

Doug Bray, Multnomah County's trial court administrator, said county officials meet and talk constantly - and have for years - about ways to achieve similar results, though without that level of apparent success.

'It could be that Washington County has come across something that should be emulated,' he said. 'That's not something we have ever had on the table.'

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