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Clackamas should pay attention to jail woes

Multnomah County's Wapato Jail could offer relief to overcrowding in the Clackamas County Jail

With the never-used Wapato Jail standing as a $58 million reminder of bureaucratic waste, no one in Multnomah County government should lightly discard ideas for finally opening that facility.

And no one in Clackamas County government should stop paying attention to the jail situation with our neighbor to the north.

Multnomah Sheriff Bernie Giusto, whom we admit hasn't been winning accolades lately for his administrative prowess, has floated a preliminary plan for opening Wapato that deserves fair consideration.

While some individuals and interest groups may find parts of Giusto's proposal objectionable, they ought not rush to judgment on a matter that's central to county government's credibility.

It's been 28 months since the Wapato jail was completed but not opened. During that time, the county has suffered a chronic shortage of jail beds while the potential solution - 500 Wapato beds -remained out of reach due to lack of funding.

The failure to open Wapato is not just an embarrassment to county government - it has a direct effect on the area's quality of life. Because of overcrowding in the county's other jails, criminals continue to be released back into the community, where they often commit new crimes.

Giusto now is coming forward with the idea of selling or leasing the county's Inverness jail to a private-prison company, which likely would use it to house out-of-state prisoners.

The company would pay enough money to the county to open Wapato and expand its capacity to 2,000 beds. That addition would give the county 1,000 more jail beds than it currently has, and the cost would be less.

If the plan worked, Multnomah County also would have more funds to dedicate to inmate rehabilitation, restitution and mental-health treatment - programs that are needed to slow the county's revolving jail door.

Giusto's plan is one of three currently being considered. A second one, that of making Wapato beds available to neighboring counties, is generating interest in Clackamas County.

Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said the potential costs are too much for the county to be a primary partner. But his need for jail beds is real - Clackamas voters last month approved a five-year Public Safety Operating Local Option Tax, which will reopen 84 beds. Roberts said he has a projected need of another 1,000 jail beds by 2010 - so he is definitely interested in looking at Wapato.

While Giusto's idea is preliminary, we've been disappointed in some of the initial responses. A lobbyist for one of the unions representing corrections officers said that the partial privatization plan 'would set a precedent, and we would not tolerate it.'

Really? The union won't even entertain a proposal that could lead to increased public safety and better treatment of prisoners without endangering union jobs? We hope union representatives reconsider that position and keep an open mind.

We concede that this idea has the potential for controversy on several fronts. One possibility is that the private company - Geo Group - might house federal immigration detainees. That would be a politically sensitive prospect for Portland. And depending on the type of prisoner being sent to Inverness, there also could be neighborhood concerns about the safety of a private jail.

It's also true that following a recent district attorney's report that was critical of Giusto's jail operations, the sheriff isn't at the height of his credibility. But that doesn't mean this proposal, which has been tested in San Diego, lacks merit.

Unless county officials are ready to allow Wapato to sit empty indefinitely as a monument to wasteful spending, they must continually explore options for putting the jail to use. And their primary concern should be adding beds that benefit the local area - which Giusto's proposal does to the tune of 1,000.

Those beds are crucial to local public safety and livability. County commissioners, union leaders and the district attorney's office must engage with the sheriff's office in a full examination of whether a partnership with a private company can lead to better public safety locally.