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Funding woes continue to plague county jail

Efforts to budget jail hit more obstacles with less state money

The Columbia County Sheriff's Office learned last week it would receive fewer-than-expected state dollars used to incarcerate local prison parolees sanctioned to jail time after violating the terms of their post-prison supervision agreement.

As a result, Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said he told the Oregon Department of Corrections he would reduce the number of jail beds available for that purpose, from roughly 15 beds on average per night to 11 beds.

'We told them, 'Fine, but based on our cost of $60 per night [to cover jail costs], that gets you 11 beds,' Dickerson said.

The grant is being reduced from last year's allocation of $323,707 to $256,185, a 21 percent total decrease. The money originates from 1995 legislation, called Senate Bill 1145, that placed responsibility for post-prison felony offenders with counties and provided a state payment system to cover resultant jail expenses. Barring case-by-case sentencing restrictions, the bill also provides the county with the option to craft programs other than incarceration, such as working on a roadside clean-up crew.

The news came even as Dickerson authorized a round of early inmate releases last week in his effort to bring the expense of running the Columbia County Jail in line with reduced revenue from county and state sources. The releases also free up space for federal U.S. Marshals Service bed rentals at the jail, which is expected to net the Sheriff's Office $2.1 million over the next year.

Early releases are only one part of a seemingly broader strategy to make the jail financially solvent. Other areas Dickerson said he is exploring include enveloping parole and probation services under Sheriff's Office control, which would need buy-in from the county commissioners, and establishing a policy that would outline for police a system to determine if certain criminals would be received at the jail.

For instance, Dickerson said he arrived to work Monday and discovered a St. Helens woman with no prior record who had been jailed for offensive littering. He said the jail could be closed to such crimes in the future.

Without substantial changes, Dickerson said, the jail on its current path would be a financial bust by 2013.

Planning for a summit of law enforcement stakeholders is underway, though no date has yet been set, he said.

Dickerson released five inmates ahead of their sentences last week. He had intended to release 10, three who had been sentenced in Columbia County Circuit Court and seven from municipal court. A scheduling conflict with the circuit court judges and pushback from a municipal court judge on one of the planned releases slowed the process.

It hasn't changed the long-term goal of decreasing the jail population from 195 to 150 inmates by October, Dickerson said. He said those releases would be ongoing and would occur in collaboration with state and municipal court judges, though inevitably people who belong in jail for crimes they have committed will be let go.

'The reality is there are going to be people on the street who shouldn't be,' he said. He added that the jail was never meant as a long-term holding facility, and the longest possible jail sentence is one year.

Of the five municipal court-sentenced inmates released last week, two have circuit court criminal records, including one Scappoose man with felony drug and theft offenses occurring as recently as 2007.

The municipal court releases were not the first to occur as the result of jail space prioritizations. In June, the Sheriff's Office released six people early who had been sanctioned to jail time for violating felony probation and parole terms.

One of those early releases was Shane Hansen, the 30-year-old Scappoose man later arrested July 9 after he was allegedly seen driving a stolen car. Hansen reportedly fled into the woods when police tried to approach him, and was later discovered holed up in an outbuilding wielding a large knife. Police arrested Hansen, who was released from jail seven days early on June 10, after a 30-minute standoff.

Walt Pesterfield, director of Community Corrections that oversees the county's probation and parole services, said he is concerned his office had not been notified about the early release of the sanctioned parolees.

He also said he is troubled by the prospect of local offenders, especially paroled felons, being released early to free up space for increased U.S. Marshals Service holds.

'I would hope there could be a balance that would keep our community in mind,' he said. He added, however, that he believes the bed rentals are a good revenue stream for the Sheriff's Office.

Pesterfield, whose own office has been hit by budget reductions and is now down three parole officers, two of whom will not be replaced, also said he doesn't believe combining parole and probation services with the Sheriff's Office would have a positive local effect.

'There's a lot of different dynamics to it,' he said.