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County eyes jail expansion

The Clackamas County Board of Commissioners is moving ahead with a proposal to add 240 beds at the county jail, beginning with an initial investment of $400,000 to pay for preliminary planning over the next three to six months.

'We have a recommendation from a blue ribbon commission assembled by Sheriff Craig Roberts that we need a modern jail, so now the question is: how do we get there?' said Clackamas County Commissioner Bill Kennemer.

Specifically, the sheriff hopes to transform the jail from its current linear design to a 'podular' design, which would allow guards to safely supervise more prisoners.

'Our current jail requires that we have one officer for every 14 people we have in custody,' said Kennemer. 'These modern pod jails allow a ratio of one guard to 60 or 70 inmates, which would be much more efficient.'

A five-year public safety levy passed by voters on Nov. 7 will allow the sheriff's office to re-open 84 beds that have been shuttered due to a lack of staff beginning next year. Through the use of a podular design, the 240 beds to be added to the jail under the current proposal could be put into service without an additional staffing increase.

The $400,000 to pay for the advanced planning will come from the county's general fund.

'We have some ending balances in our general fund accounts because we have been very efficient over the past year, so that is how we are paying for this initial work,' Kennemer said.

The actual design and construction of 240-bed expansion is expected to cost $50 million - an expense likely to be paid for with bonds, according to Kennemer.

'Ever since Measure 50, which set our permanent tax rate, we have been limited to an annual increase of about 3 percent,' he said. 'However, because we're such a fast-growing county, with so many houses and businesses starting up, there is an additional one and a half percent coming in. I think it would be appropriate to dedicate some of that to expanding the jail.'

The county's long-term goal is to nearly double the current capacity of the jail, from 434 to 800 beds, at a total cost of approximately $160 million.

Roberts was happy at the news that the expansion he has long advocated has now begun to move ahead, although problems remain.

'Multnomah County is raising the price on its juvenile beds to $300 per day - that means we will pay $1.3 million more each year to house juveniles, in addition to $300,000 in transportation costs,' he said.

The sheriff hopes that the board will consider additional funding to pay for a juvenile pod, and also a pod dedicated to inmates suffering with mental illness.

'They committed to 240 beds, and there is the potential to get the other two done, as well,' said Roberts. 'This is a little bit of a surprise for us.'