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Jail space and the lack of it

The entire legal system struggles with the growing numbers on the waiting list for the Crook County Jail

by: RAMONA MCCALLISTER/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Inmates at the Crook County Jail spend some time in the day room on Thursday. The jail currently has a waiting list of 85, and through the month of August 2012, there have been 417 matrixed out of the system.

With five town hall meetings in the community behind him, Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley has fielded a host of questions about the Crook County Jail.
   Hensley was prepared for questions at his meetings with the public, but one topic seemed to emerge repeatedly. The Crook County Jail matrix system is used when there are not enough jail beds available, and the staff at the jail must use specific criteria to determine which inmates will be released, and in what order. It goes without saying that a waiting list for the Crook County jail is not good for the community, but the trickle-down effects of the issue are more long-reaching.
   In the matrix system, the offender is scored on their criminal history and the seriousness of their crime, among other criteria. According to Jail Commander for Crook County Jail Al Bond, there is a matrix sheet used to determine the risk of releasing the inmate, and the highest positive numbers are released first when there is a waiting list to serve time. In 2005, Crook County matrixed 23 inmates, in 2006 there were 42 matrixed, and in 2007, there were 101. In 2010, the numbers skyrocketed to 738. Last year, in 2011, there were 745 matrixed. The figures for 2012 through August are 417, according to Bond.
   On the surface, the matrix system may seem to be localized to inmates moving in and out of the system, but the current 85 inmates waiting to serve jail time in Crook County affect the local court system, parole and probation, and the entire community.
   Rhonda Belanger, Crook County Sheriff’s Office Community Corrections Division Director, said that the process starts with the court. When a court mandates an offender to treatment, it is their job to enforce that mandate. She noted that they only have two options — jail or the work crew.
   If an offender misses a treatment or appointment, then they are put on the work crew for a few days, said Belanger. If the client doesn’t show for the work crew, they still have to meet the original sanction, which would then lead to time in jail. The only problem with this scenario is that there is usually not enough jail space. Belanger also added that it can take more than one year to get an offender through the system, while waiting for jail availability.
   “It’s really hard for us to take a jail bed up when we know we have got people coming in that we have to have in,” she added.
   Belanger said that to make the system flow, they really need jail beds. In Crook County, there are five beds allotted to parole and probation.
    It affects the entire system, and Belanger added that there is a controversy as to whether jail would help their treatment outcomes. However, jail disrupts the pattern so offenders can have immediate consequences and time to start thinking about their choices in a more healthy direction.
   “If they don’t do their treatment, then we have to have some kind of recourse.”
   Crook County Sheriff Jim Hensley explained that jail is a tool to help people who have made choices that have got them into trouble. He gave the example of Crook County Drug Court when participants in the program relapse.
   “The judge would use 48 hours in jail to as a tool to get their attention.”
   He said that the use of the jail has a wider spectrum than drug court. He said that if a new offender isn’t matrixed, they have to either see the judge right away or post security — which is a monetary amount that guarantees that they will show up for court. If they don’t show up, then the offender is charged with failure to appear and the state keeps the money for their security. Hensley said there are very few offenders who post security, due to lack of jail beds.
   “Once they are released from jail and they do not show up for court, then we start all over again,” said Hensley. “Then we have to get a warrant, and it takes court time, district attorney time, and sheriff’s office time to process those warrants and then go out and find that person and get them arrested.”
   He said this is a continuous cycle until they finally see the judge. There may also be restitution to be paid to victims, which if not paid, can cause sanctions by their probation officer.
   “Sanctions are there to help guide (the offender) and can be used as a tool to get that probationer in compliance with their probation.”
   Because the jail is full, it can put the offender and their probation in limbo while waiting to get them in compliance.
   “From my perspective, I have clients that are very frustrated because they have jail sentences to complete,” commented defense attorney-at-law Bill Condron. “They conscientiously try to complete those jail sentences, and there is not enough room quite often for them to get in and complete their jail time as ordered by the judge.”
   He added that space and conditions are also an issue, and it can be difficult for medical staff and visitors.
   Crook County has 16 beds in the local jail and rents 16 beds from Jefferson County. Sheriff Hensley noted of the Jefferson County jail, “Because they have jail beds, they don’t have to do a balancing act.”
   Jefferson County built a new jail and moved in to the facility in 2001. Captain and Jail Commander for Jefferson County Jail Tony Lewis said that he has been employed there for more than 20 years. He was part of the system when their jail was in a similar situation as Crook County, with a waiting list at times of more than 200. Lewis said that the difference is night and day, when comparing how the system worked before and after the new jail.
   “It’s made a major difference in the way everybody does business over this way,” said Lewis. “If somebody is mildly out of compliance, and you can go and get them and put them in jail for three or four days or a little longer, depending on what the issue is and get their attention—they are a lot more willing to do what is required to stay in compliance because they do not want to do that jail time. When you don’t have the beds, they know that there is no real consequence, so compliance is not a real priority for them because there is nothing you can do to them anyhow.”
   He went on to say that you not only have people not in compliance with requirements of parole and probation, but there are the same offenders that are committing new crimes and actually starting a whole new sequence of events, whereas this could be stopped early by having a short jail sanction at the beginning.
   “You have a total system effect that is favorable to getting the people from point A to Point B through the court system through their parole and probation time, and being successful in getting off the roles.”
   Lewis said that having availability of beds on an as-needed basis changes the scope of what the courts can do, what the parole and probation staff can do, and it makes the system work.
   “Without the jail piece, it’s a broken deal,” said Lewis.
   If individuals or groups would like to hear Sheriff Jim Hensley’s presentation about the Crook County Jail, call 541-447-6398.