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County still needs to work on pre-trial releases

In a recent guest column (“Sheriff: There’s no evidence that pre-trial releases are a problem”) Sheriff Pat Garrett asserts that Washington County’s release program “meets rigorous standards of the law, respects due process and is responsive to those innocent until proven guilty.”

Since taking office in November, Sheriff Garrett has been working effectively toward positive change, but there’s a lot of work to do before reality meets his optimistic assessment.

In fact, the Oregon Supreme Court recently took the extraordinary and rare step of intervening in pre-trial release issues in Washington County. In a case against one judge, the court ordered the release of an inmate whose pre-trial incarceration far exceeded legal limits. In a second case, the court is considering whether a judge imposed unlawful conditions on a defendant’s pre-trial release. In another recent Washington County case, a complaint was filed with the state Judicial Fitness Commission against a judge who threatened to jail a lawyer for trying to speak on his client’s behalf at arraignment. We will know we are making progress toward a fair and effective pre-trial release system when:

·Defense attorneys are allowed to review affidavits for probable cause prior to arraignment.

·Attorneys do not have to wait a week or more to argue for their client’s release.

·Defendants have an adequate opportunity to discuss their case in private with an attorney before being arraigned.

·In-custody defendants are allowed to come into the courtroom and stand beside their attorney for arraignment instead of watching through a glass window from a holding cell.

·Inmates are no longer pleading guilty just to get out of jail.

·Release decisions are made by the judicial branch, as required by Oregon law, instead of the sheriff’s office.

·County officials read David Bennett’s study all the way to the end. No one should quote Bennett’s estimated cost of a full service pre-trial release program ($1.5 million, page 8 of the study) unless they also quote the estimated $6 million plus in net savings, much of which is dependent on implementation of a full-service pre-trial release program.

It’s worth repeating that half the inmates in the Washington County Jail are not serving a sentence for a conviction, but are simply waiting for their cases to be resolved, and that many -- if not most -- are there for probation violations or minor offenses.

Sheriff Garrett and I could go back and forth on the circumstances of the individual cases I mentioned in my previous column, but the point has never been that these people are all model citizens. Take Angela, the woman who was jailed for missing her trial, even though she appeared at the time and place indicated by court paperwork (the court called her case 15 minutes earlier). Angela, who had no criminal history, was charged with shoplifting. Sheriff Garrett notes that Angela gave a fake name when arrested and had previously missed court appearances.

He’s right. Unfortunately, many defendants are required to come to court numerous times because when they arrive for a hearing it turns out there are no judges available, so they must return – 10 or more times in some cases. People who are disorganized, forgetful or have serious health problems or other challenges like Angela are likely to miss one or more court appearances —unless they are on a pre-trial release program, which has been shown (in numerous other counties) to reduce the number of missed court appearances because it provides close supervision and high-quality risk assessments for deciding which defendants should be released pre-trial.

Washington County was willing to spend over $6,000 to hold Angela in jail pre-trial for a $100 case.

Like so many others, Angela needed supervision, not jail.

Jail is the criminal justice system’s equivalent of the emergency room. It is the most expensive and often the least effective way to deal with many of the problems.

David Bennett was paid $360,000 for a comprehensive study of Washington County’s criminal justice system. He concluded major changes were warranted and that a full-service pre-trial release program was integral to all the improvements and cost-saving measures he recommended. We’ll know we are making progress when Washington County adopts those changes.

Dean Smith is a lawyer who works for Metropolitan Public Defender in Washington County.




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