After 16 years, budget cuts close facility that saw 800 criminals a year

They used to be jaywalkers, shoplifters and other petty offenders. Nowadays, inmates at the 160-bed Multnomah County Restitution Center are serving time for everything from rape and sex abuse to domestic assault, robbery and repeat drunken driving.

It's a shift that's happened over the years as the Portland area's population has grown and the number of jail beds has shrunk, forcing police to jail the most dangerous inmates while letting the less serious ones fall by the wayside.

The 16-year-old restitution center, at 1115 S.W. 11th Ave., will undergo one final change this week: It will officially close its doors Wednesday because of $3 million in county budget cuts.

Law enforcement officials say the displacement of these offenders Ñ either to another jail facility or out into the community Ñ will pose potentially serious public safety issues that will send ripple effects through the community and undoubtedly increase the crime rate.

'For some people, you know when they get out of jail they'll re-offend,' said Lt. Michael Shults, who's been helping shuffle people and papers through the release process in past weeks. 'But when you cut 160 beds from the jail system, some of those people are definitely going to re-offend.'

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners approved the cuts Dec. 19 at a public meeting amid much opposition. The county faces a budget shortfall of $25 million to $30 million, and every local public safety entity Ñ including courts, the juvenile justice system, public defenders and the district attorney's office Ñ is looking at dramatic cuts.

The effects will be harsher if voters do not approve the Jan. 28 tax increase measure.

The loss of the work-release center means that 800 criminals who cycle through annually won't be able to stay there.

'It was a difficult decision,' Sheriff Bernie Giusto said. The people who come to the restitution center 'have the best chance of re-entering society.'

'Matrixing' makes room

Those being sent to jail will cause waves of 'matrixing,' a process the sheriff's office uses to make room for new offenders by releasing lower-risk offenders early.

While January isn't usually a big time for early releases, the jail has released about 100 offenders in the last two weeks to make room for the restitution center's inmates. This probably will continue into the spring, said Capt. Linda Yankee, who oversees the process.

Said Giusto: 'Matrixing is going to be a way of life in this city, I'm afraid. We can expect those numbers to go up and up and our jails to get harder.'

Before he took office, Giusto promised he'd take a more aggressive approach to booking inmates than former Sheriff Dan Noelle, who instituted a policy last summer to cite rather than arrest offenders charged with a Class C felony or less.

Last week Giusto elaborated on his strategy, saying he'll work with Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker and leaders of the five Portland precincts to book certain offenders in a targeted way. It will require more matrixing at the jail, but it will at least bring new offenders into the jail for a short time to 'interrupt' criminal actions, he said.

'I might take a month and tell them to bring in everyone for car thefts, and we'll do our best to have them' in the jails, Giusto said. Or, he explained, his office might adjust the booking guidelines for certain precincts during a police crackdown on drug dealing.

Last Friday, the restitution center was abuzz with activity. Work crews from Inverness Jail helped move boxes from the facility. Counselors made last-minute contacts with probation officers and inmates' family members, while inmates passed the time reading or watching TV until their names were called over a loudspeaker.

It was a sobering occasion for the staff, since 14 counselors and 24 deputies were preparing to be officially laid off Wednesday because of the budget cuts. A few will take other positions within the agency, but most are left without a job.

'I have no place else to go,' said Paul Wurtsmith, a county employee for 11 years and a counselor at the restitution center for the past three. 'I'm a couple of years short of retirement, and my biggest concern is to continue insurance for my wife, who is chronically ill.'

Deputy Larry Nelson, a 25-year department veteran, said he would officially retire Wednesday, the same day the center closes. 'When the place goes, I go,' he said.

Fewer than 30 offenders were left to be released Friday. Judges stopped sentencing people to the work-release center in December, and the staff has been scattering the releases since then. About 30 nonviolent offenders released into the community will be electronically monitored.

Shults said the fate of the county-owned building is yet unknown; it will remain partly operational in case the county board of commissioners cuts money from elsewhere to fund it.

Model program

The work-release center began operating in 1987 as a model program in the building that formerly housed the Martha Washington Hotel and the notorious Hotel Rajneesh. It was intended for misdemeanor offenders, who could continue going to work and school and spend time with their families as long as they reported back to the facility at required times. If not, a warrant was issued for their arrest.

Through the years, it expanded to a 160-bed coed facility for nonviolent felons. Inmates pay their own room and board.

In recent years, as Multnomah County lost the 190-bed jail in Troutdale and a floor of the downtown Multnomah County Detention Center because of budget cuts, both deputies and inmates say the restitution center has filled a critical niche as a sentencing option for middle-of-the-road offenders.

'If it wasn't for this place, I would've had to drop out of school,' said Christian Hopkins, a student at Mt. Hood Community College who served half of his 90-day sentence for distribution of marijuana. 'I got to spend Christmas with my family and spend time with my son.'

George Smith, 29, an inmate who dressed in a suit Friday as he awaited release into the community, said the word on the street is that there are no serious sanctions anymore because of the lack of jail space.

'Crime rates are going to go up,' he said. 'When I was caught up in my addiction, if someone were to write me a ticket, I'd go out and buy another bag.'

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