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The move in late February is the first step toward a DOC expansion that could cost up to $9.5 million.

SALEM — The Department of Corrections plans to move nearly 800 inmates in late February to a vacant medium-security facility at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution in Madras.

The move, which will cost $2.5 million, is the first in a two-step plan to accommodate unanticipated growth in the state’s prison population. The inmates will be moved from a smaller minimum-security complex at Deer Ridge that lacks room for more beds.

“That plan is in motion,” said DOC Director Colette Peters.

The entire plan involves opening 200 more beds. If fully implemented, the expansion is estimated to cost a total of $9.5 million.

“It gives you an idea of how expensive correctional facilities are,” said Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

DOC’s biennial budget failed to account for the cost because the state projection for the inmate population ballooned between April and October.

That means lawmakers might need to approve up to $9.5 million in new expenditures at DOC during the legislative session that begins Feb. 1.

Some lawmakers have suggested they might have to raid a $40 million Justice Reinvestment fund dedicated to paying for a suite of county-level support services designed to keep offenders out of prison. County officials have said such a withdrawal of funds could deal a deadly blow to the two-year-old Justice Reinvestment program.

The male inmate population was 13,386 as of Wednesday. The trigger for opening the 200 additional beds is 13,490, Peters said.

Inmate populations can vary from day-to-day, the DOC director said.

“When I look at these negative numbers I want to get excited and say, this is the trend, and we are moving forward, but unfortunately, the variance is ever so slight,” Peters said.

The Oregon Criminal Justice Commission has been spearheading an effort to urge and assist counties in curtailing the number of offenders that judges send to DOC. Each county in November received a target monthly number for reductions, which in concert would allow DOC to avoid opening the 200 additional beds at Deer Ridge.

“By all accounts, (counties) are doing a good job with the intake population,” said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, a member of the Oregon Task Force on Public Safety.

“What we are seeing is people aren’t leaving as quickly as we assumed that they would.”

“I just want to make sure that we reflect on the record that counties are working hard to manage their input into the system,” Williamson told the ways and means committee Friday. “This shouldn’t be a reflection on them or their programming under Justice Reinvestment.”

Programming differs from county-to-county but can include probation officers, counseling, mentoring, housing, substance abuse treatment, better criminal case management and other services.

Williamson has committed to defending the Justice Reinvestment fund from a raid, but she faces a host of competing interests during the 35-day session in February and early March, according to lawmakers.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, is pessimistic that DOC can avoid the expansion at Deer Ridge in the spring. Bates said he has visited all but two prisons in the state.

“These prisons are jammed,” Bates said. “These people are squeezed in every corner. Sooner or later, we are going to have to make some changes. Deer Ridge is the most logical place to expand now.”

“I think when you come back in February, you are going to have to tell us you are going to have to open up more beds,” Bates told Peters.

By Paris Achen
Portland Tribune Capital Bureau Reporter
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