Empty jail beds present a fresh problem
- Jennifer Anderson
- Portland Tribune - News
Overcrowding used to free inmates early; now there's lots of room
Portland Police Chief Mark Kroeker said Monday that he is reviewing the bureau's arrest rate in light of the excessive number of empty beds at the Multnomah County jail in the last three weeks.
There's been anywhere from 40 to 120 jail beds empty during the past week, according to Capt. Linda Yankee of the sheriff's office, who oversees facility services at the Multnomah County Justice Center. There were 46 empty beds Monday morning.
Previously, the jail was so full that the county released prisoners early every weekend for at least a year. In the last three weeks, no prisoner has been released early from the county jails because of overcrowding. There were 1,150 prisoners in custody in January 2000 but only 731 last month.
Sheriff Bernie Giusto said the population is in flux because of fallout from the local criminal justice system after state and county budget cuts.
A state Supreme Court judge last month responded to the budget crisis by eliminating Friday court days and delaying prosecution of most misdemeanor and low-level felony cases until July because of a lack of indigent defense lawyers to represent offenders.
As a result, many people who normally would be sentenced to 85 days in jail for a probation violation are not being held because there's no one to represent them.
Court changes take toll
Giusto said there also are inmates who are 'dumped back on the street' instead of being held in jail because their cases have been delayed until July or later Ñ when the state Legislature might reinstate funds to hold normal court operations.
Also, with no arraignments on Fridays, many offenders are being held in jail throughout the weekend until a Monday court date, at which time the jail beds empty out and then fill up during the week.
'Empty jail beds used to be a good thing,' Giusto said. 'Empty jail beds now means that the system is starting to show the effects of not being able to sanction people, hold them accountable. Empty beds in this county equals lack of justice, lack of accountability.'
Mayor Vera Katz told a group of city police officers on Friday that they should not hesitate to make arrests, despite the fact that there are now months-long delays in prosecution of most misdemeanor cases as a result of state budget cuts.
'The message I want to get across to officers is: 'Arrest, arrest, arrest, arrest,' ' she told police at an antigang meeting Friday. 'The beds are available; we need to use them.'
Kroeker said he may have an arrest rate analysis done by the end of the week, but until then he won't be directing officers to change the way they make arrests.
'It's a very interesting phenomenon,' he said. 'It's surprising but encouraging. It sends a signal that there's not a 'no vacancy' sign at the jail.'
Detox center cuts back hours
The jails also may feel the impact caused by the daytime closure of the sobering station at Hooper Detoxification Center, 20 N.E. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., the place where police bring alcohol- and drug-affected people off the street.
Beginning Wednesday, the center Ñ formerly open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week Ñ will cut its hours to accept patients only between its busiest hours, 9 p.m. to 3 a.m.
That leaves police to pick up the slack, bringing those people instead to local emergency rooms or to jail Ñ if the person commits an offense that warrants arrest.
'I hate to see it because I see it as an encroachment into the entire system,' Kroeker said of the reduced hours. 'We do pick up people on the streets, especially downtown, in the middle of the day. Alcoholism is not a nighttime disorder.'
Richard Harris, executive director of Central City Concern, the agency that operates Hooper, says he had no choice.
The cutbacks came from a loss of $600,000 in funding from Care Oregon, the health insurance company under the Oregon Health Plan that contracted with Hooper for detox services in the metropolitan area.
The nonprofit center was created 31 years ago as an alternative to the jail when the state Legislature decriminalized public intoxication. Police bring in an average of 30 people per day, or 11,000 annually.
Restored funding for the program is on the list of items that would be funded by the city and county's proposed business tax increase. 'This keeps people safe, and it is a matter of life and death to some people,' Harris said. 'I'm afraid people are going to be overlooked in the whole process.'
Kroeker guesses that most intoxicated people will be shuttled off to emergency rooms, rather than to the jail, but sheriff's spokesman Lt. Mike Shults says the jails are prepared to handle the influx.
Most people who come to jail already are under the influence of drugs or alcohol, he says, so deputies are well trained to care for them and supervise the holding facility.