Matrixing halts; reasons unclear

Officials optimistic but unsure why inmate numbers have dropped

For the first time in four years, Multnomah County has not let anyone out of its jails early because of overcrowding for a full calendar month.

No one was released in February and so far in March. It's actually been since Jan. 14 that anyone has been freed early from jail.

A stable number of available jail beds and a recent and sharp downward trend in bookings since October seem on paper to be most responsible for what county officials universally called good news. Of course, what looks on paper to be a reason may only be a factor.

'The real reason this is going on - I have no idea,' Sheriff Bernie Giusto said.

The last time there were zero early inmate releases - called 'matrix' releases - was from March through June in 2003. That was because public-defender firms lost their funding and defendants were released at arraignment because no lawyers were available for their defense.

Multnomah County Commissioner Lisa Naito said there are any number of possible explanations for the dearth of early releases. Among them the success of a phone-notification system so fewer people get arrested for missing court dates; cops bringing in fewer mentally ill people after the controversial police-custody death of James Chasse Jr., who had schizophrenia, last fall; crime decreasing more than statistics suggest.

Or it could be a fluke.

Reasons aren't apparent

County Department of Community Justice data shows that the percentage of people released after being arrested but before ever being booked into jail has decreased. Officials expected to find the opposite, that more people were being released prior to booking, which would have helped explain the lack of matrix releases.

About 1,500 people a month are brought in. From October 2005 to April 2006, 39 percent were released before being booked into jail. Between May and August last year, the number was 47 percent. From September through December, it was 56 percent.

Then, in January and February, while matrix releases dwindled, the percentages lessened by more than half - to 24 percent in January and 26 percent last month.

'This just reinforces that we have to find a better way to control the hydraulics of this system,' Naito said, then turned back to talking about the lack of matrix releases. 'I don't have any idea either at this point why this might be going on, but it's undeniably a good thing.'

Giusto said he hoped a way existed to pinpoint the cause so the results would last.

'At this point, however, there are just too many possibilities,' he said. 'We're looking at all of them, believe me, but there's no shortcut to figure this out.'

Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler said the situation gave county officials breathing room to study and understand the underlying dynamics.

'It might just be a temporary respite,' he said. 'There are no champagne corks popping at this point. But it is terrific news for the county.'

Different role for Wapato?

In 1987, the practice began of releasing county inmates simply for jail overcrowding when people deemed more dangerous were booked. Federal District Judge James Redden wrote the first criteria for what became known as 'matrixing.'

It was used infrequently for 15 years, until then-Sheriff Dan Noelle was forced to close some jail beds beginning in 2001. From a peak in 2000 of 2,073 available beds, 1,690 were available when Giusto took office at the beginning of 2003.

Since January 2002, Multnomah County has matrixed out a total of 13,001 inmates, according to sheriff's office records. The number of jail beds reached a low point - 1,519 - from August through October of 2005, according to sheriff's office records.

And since July 2004, the Wapato jail and its 525 beds have been ready and waiting. But the county doesn't have the money to operate the jail.

The number of available jail beds has rebounded to 1,690, a number that has remained constant since December 2005. Standard bookings - people arrested on the street and brought in to jail by police - have decreased nearly 16 percent since October, from a four-year high of 2,955 to 2,493 in February, according to sheriff's office records.

Since Jan. 14, when 15 inmates were released early, no one has been matrixed out of a Multnomah County jail.

All of this has gotten Wheeler to thinking about Wapato.

'If these numbers hold up over time - if, if, if - maybe we can use that facility for specialized incarceration programs,' he said.

Instead of holding regular inmates, for example, the entire jail could be turned into a treatment facility for chronic drug and alcohol abusers who came through the justice system again and again, Wheeler said.

'The question is whether this is realistic or are we getting ahead of ourselves,' he said. 'I think it's good to be able to even consider such a thing.'

Other county officials were less openly optimistic, preferring to wait and get more information.

'I'm not even ready to say the word 'Wapato' because so much can still change,' Giusto said. 'But I can tell you that's where we'd all like to get eventually.'

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How jail capacity, bookings and monthly releases have changed since 2004