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County jail gets some beds back

Clackamas County reopens almost half of the beds shut down, leading to fewer early releases

The Clackamas County Sheriff's Office has reopened 40 of the 84 beds that the state shut down five years ago, lowering the number of forced releases from the jail.

It hopes to open the other half of the beds by March.

Sheriff Craig Roberts said the change has been significant.

'It is making a difference, it's had a reduction in our early releases,' he said. 'You get to a point where one comes in the front door and one goes out the back … now we've gotten to a point where we didn't have to release anybody for a few days.

'By keeping them in jail, that is keeping [the community] safer. We have a ways to go, yes, but we're making a step in the right direction.'

Jails are generally used to house people awaiting trial and people sentenced to terms of less than a year. Those sentenced to more than a year are sent to prisons.

The three cellblocks containing 84 beds were shut down in 2002. Up to that point the facility had been an intake center for state prisoners, where convicts were processed before being distributed out to various prisons, said Detective Jim Strovink. In 2002 the state moved the intake operations to another facility. The associated fund cuts meant the county could no longer afford to staff the whole jail.

Barry Rotrock, of the jail's citizen review committee, said funding cuts then piled up until the jail could barely keep prisoners anymore.

'You get a levy here and a levy there, a general fund cut here and suddenly' you can't fund the beds, he said.

By 2007, the jail was releasing an average of 436 prisoners each month. Most of those released were not convicts but people awaiting trial.

When Roberts realized the poor state of the jail in 2005, he gathered a group of citizens and formed the Blue Ribbon Committee to help him identify the problems and come up with both short-term and long-term solutions.

'We looked at everything - do we just incarcerate everyone, or do we do other things,' said Rotrock.

He said the way they went about the review was key in generating public support for the levy that was eventually put to the voters.

'The process was very open, it was open to the press, we had dissenters, and by the end of that, all of their questions were answered, and that shows that we weren't trying to hide anything, and you just couldn't argue with that,' he said.

New jail

The Blue Ribbon Committee recommended as their top priority that the county increase jail capacity and recommended strengthening programs for drug and alcohol treatment, mental health issues and 'transitional programs to reduce recidivism.'

They also said the physical structure of the current jail is less efficient than newer models.

'[The current jail] is what's called a linear jail, it's more staff intensive,' Rotrock said.

That's why the committee recommended a podular layout for the new jail, which Roberts said could use about the same staff size as the current jail even though it's going to hold twice as many prisoners.

And building that new jail was key, Rotrcok said.

'[The Sheriff's Offfice] felt, and we certainly felt after we saw the figures, that they were just releasing too many people … there was just no deterrent with the jails … the judges said this is a hoax.'

Clackamas County Judge Steven Maurer last year said publicly that the jail's failures had made him a 'liar' because his sentences weren't being carried out.

So Roberts went to the voters, who last year passed a $42.7 million levy for jails.

Roberts said he hopes to have the new facility, which will increase the county's capacity to about 1200 beds, completed in 18-24 months.

'We did a projection … and actually by 2010 we need about 1400 beds, but for us clearly it's a step in the right direction.'