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A $2,000 solution to a $3 problem

Fortunately for Jeremy, Oregon law requires a release decision within 48 hours. Unfortunately... Washington County tends to not follow that law.

A couple months ago, 33-year-old Jeremy was passing through Washington County on a Max light-rail train.

He had purchased a ticket earlier that day in Clark County, which he believed was a regional ticket allowing him to continue his trip on Max. It turns out he was wrong about that.

He was arrested and taken to jail for knowingly riding the Max without proper fare. He could have pled guilty and been released to pay court fees and serve 18 months of formal probation, but since he didn't knowingly trespass on Max, he wanted a trial.

Unfortunately for Jeremy, he couldn't come up with $250 for bail, so this meant he might have to sit in jail for up to 60 days while waiting for trial.

Fortunately for Jeremy, Oregon law requires a release officer to meet with non-violent, low-level offenders who are in jail waiting for trial and to release them if they meet certain criteria, or to write a report so a judge can consider release. The law requires the release decision to happen within 48 hours of arraignment.

Unfortunately for Jeremy, Washington County tends to not follow that law. Washington County has only two release officers and it seems no release officer bothered to meet with Jeremy until about two weeks after the 48 hour deadline had passed - and then only because Jeremy's attorney intervened.

Ultimately, the release officer decided Jeremy should stay in jail until he pled guilty, posted bail or had a trial.

21 days at $100 per day

Twenty-one days after Jeremy was taken to jail - where he was housed at an estimated cost of $110 per day - a judge finally released him, and a few weeks later another judge dismissed the case. The math is quite simple - the county spent over $2,000 to house a man on a $3 case that was not worth trying.

For purposes of contrast, Multnomah County wouldn't have spent a dime to lock up Jeremy. Why the difference? Multnomah County, which has 30 percent more residents than Washington County, has seven times as many release officers - their 14 to our two - as well as about 20 release supervisors to our zero. One Multnomah County release program, run by six deputy sheriffs, saves an estimated $1.5 million - $1.7 million per year. That's correct.

Having a release program can save money (a lot of money) because it costs less to supervise someone on release than to jail them pending trial.

Fewer officers are needed to supervise them in the community, and you don't need to feed and house them. In Washington County, perhaps some officers currently employed in the jail could be reassigned to supervise those that merit release.

No known criminal history

Jeremy was held in jail for three weeks primarily because the release officers thought he might not stick around for his trial.

Jeremy was not held because he is dangerous. No one thinks he is. Jeremy has no known criminal history.

Unfortunately, a lot of other people like Jeremy are taking up beds in Washington County Jail. Jailed because the beds are there, paid for by taxpayers, and because the county has basically no program to supervise those that are released prior to trial.

The question is: Does Washington County really have so much money that we can afford to jail a non-dangerous, first-time Max-fare violator - and others like him - for up to 60 days before the case goes to trial?

Sheriff Rob Gordon recently spoke with County Commissioners and lamented forced inmate releases due to overcrowding in the jail.

Is he aware the jail is housing inmates like Jeremy?

By Washington County standards, there was nothing exceptional about Jeremy's case - except perhaps the fact that he was not willing to plead guilty just to get out of jail.

This is a problem begging for a fair and money-saving solution.

-Dean Smith is a lawyer who works for Metropolitan Public Defender in Washington County.