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Citing budget woes, Sheriff sends inmates to the streets early

by: Darryl Swan OUT EARLY — Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson has released inmates early from the jail in order to make room for greater revenue-producing inmates.

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office has released its first round of inmates ahead of sentencing schedules as a means to cut costs and free up capacity for more revenue-producing inmates in the Columbia County Jail.

Seven inmates, all convicted in municipal court of misdemeanor crimes, were released. An additional three inmates sentenced in Columbia County Circuit Court are expected to soon be released as part of the same batch, pending judge reviews of possible early-release candidates, said Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson.

More releases are planned over the next few months with the goal of bringing the jail inmate population down from 195 to 150 by October, Dickerson said.

The freed-up space would allow the jail to receive more U.S. Marshall's Office holds, which is expected to furnish the sheriff's office with $2.1 million over the next year for use of the jail.

'The reality is, now, the paying customers are the ones who are going to get the beds,' Dickerson said.

The Sheriff's Office has been struggling to balance what it perceives as patrol and investigative expectations from county residents amid declining revenue.

The budgetary outlook grew even grimmer when voters rejected an estimated $2.2 million annual tax levy last May that would have provided additional funding for patrols and detectives.

Dickerson said he has composed several budget plans to meet a range of possible funding scenarios, including the likelihood of stark declines over the next few years. The contingency plans account for a drop-off in U.S. Marshall's Office inmates and the possibility federal funding tied to historical county timber harvests is not reauthorized, among others.

'We're ready and we have plans in place, but they're scary,' Dickerson said. Some considerations include reducing the overall jail population and limiting patrol response.

One plan being weighed would involve placing a limit on the number of inmates sentenced to the jail from municipal courts, such as Scappoose and St. Helens. Sentencing numbers above the limit would trigger a requirement for cities to pay a jail fee.

Presently cities do not pay the Sheriff's Office for inmates who receive municipal court sentences. Neither does the jail receive money for inmates sentenced in the state circuit court, however. The distinction between the two is that municipal courts hear only misdemeanor crimes and not felonies, Dickerson said.

Increasingly, Dickerson said, municipal court sentences are getting longer, in some cases running180 or 360 days.

'For us, the municipal courts are the big draw on our budgets,' he said.

Dickerson alluded to what he said were 'promises' cities had made in the ramp up to passage of the 1998 $13.9 million jail construction levy to hold their jail populations to certain levels. The jail had been built with the expectation outside agencies, such as federal immigration police services, would provide operational revenue through bed rentals.

At the time of the Spotlight interview with Dickerson last week, he said there were around 20 St. Helens Municipal Court-sentenced inmates in the jail, and between five and 10 Scappoose Municipal Court sentences.

'My question to the sheriff is whether it is fair to ignore justice for our county's taxpayers in favor of collecting money from the federal government for people who do not live here, did not commit crimes here and who have not burdened our thinly stretched law enforcement officials?' said Diana Shera Taylor, who works as the municipal court judge in St. Helens and Scappoose.

Taylor said she is willing to discuss sentences levels with Dickerson, noting that she hasn't been approached to do so.

'The misdemeanors that are handled by the Scappoose and St. Helens municipal courts are not petty,' Shera Taylor said in an e-mail response to Spotlight questions. 'We deal with assaults, strangulations, thefts from private individuals as well as local merchants, property damage crimes, DUIIs, endangering of children as well as adults, and drug crimes. These issues have a huge impact on the quality of life in our communities.'

She said she could recall only two yearlong sentences - one for a repeat DUII offender who posed a threat to his family, the other a methamphetamine addict with a history of assault and property crime - and that 180-day sentences are 'few and far between.'

Jail time is rarely imposed on first-time offenders, Shera Taylor said. She also said she considers municipal courts to serve a therapeutic purpose, and said it is only when offenders are unwilling to follow through with more rehabilitative sentences that jail time is imposed.

Chad Olsen, city administrator for St. Helens, said a jail fee could prompt a change in the city's sentencing policy, which the City Council establishes. The city is already engaged in a cost-saving initiative to trim $1 million out of its general fund.

'It would depend, of course, on the fee,' he said. 'We're already in cut mode.'

Dickerson said the added prospect of water and sewage rate increases in St. Helens is furthering the jail's financial burden. He said the jail paid $90,000 this year on its water bill, an increase from $43,000 in 2007 and $29,000 in 2006. He budgeted $110,000 for the current year ending June 2012, though it's looking like that won't be enough, he said.

'This water thing is out of control for us,' he said. He reduced shower temperatures for inmates to encourage shorter showers and halted unnecessary programs that used water, such as the community jail garden that contributed food to the Columbia Pacific Food Bank.