Columbia County may rent 10 beds in mid-Willamette Valley if jail closes

by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: MARK MILLER - The Polk County Jail in downtown Dallas. The jail could take 10 inmates from Columbia County for $650 per day, with an additional $75 per inmate for up to two additional jail beds.The Columbia County Board of Commissioners approved an intergovernmental agreement with Polk County to rent bed space at the jail in Dallas Wednesday, Feb. 12.

Under the terms of the agreement, Columbia County would be able to formally request the use of 10 beds at the Polk County Jail for $650 per day. The county could also rent up to two additional beds at a higher $75 daily rate if the bed space is not being used by Polk County.

The agreement with Polk County is a major component of the county’s contingency planning in case it has to close the Columbia County Jail, which county officials say will happen by the end of June without additional revenue.

Sheriff Jeff Dickerson said Tuesday that renting 10 jail beds from Polk County would provide Columbia County with a place to hold “very bad people,” but the county will lose a valuable element of its public safety system if the jail closes.

“The everyday problem-causers who just need a little bit of time to cool their jets aren’t going to have that,” Dickerson said. “People think [the jail] is just a local prison, and it’s so much more than that. It’s a place where immediate problems can be solved for a night or two ... a way to interdict the behavior that is occurring at the time.”

Municipal courts also use the jail. Misdemeanor offenders can be sentenced to spend up to a year in jail, depending on the severity of the offense. St. Helens Police Chief Terry Moss said last week that without a local jail, the municipal court’s ability to punish misdemeanor crimes will be limited. Oregon law also allows courts to levy fines for misdemeanors.

Law enforcement will also be constrained by the number of beds it has available in other counties, Dickerson said. Even if Columbia County can use a full 12 beds in Polk County and it rents several more beds at the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facilities in The Dalles — an option Dickerson said he is considering if the county can come up with the funding — it may still come up short of the 17 beds it has for local offenders.

Several of those 17 beds are occupied by inmates considered “higher-risk,” who are unlikely to be displaced due to the severity of their charges. There is a total of 25 local beds at the jail, but eight are reserved for probation and parole violators and paid for by the Oregon Office of Corrections.

For much of last year, the Columbia County Sheriff’s Office publicized a weekly count of inmates it “force-released” due to lack of space, as inmates judged to be higher-risk were booked and held instead.

Dickerson said he worries Columbia County will attract criminals who know the county has nowhere to hold them even if they are arrested.

“Even if they do get caught, there’s not a good chance anything will happen to them,” Dickerson said.

Dickerson said people arrested in Columbia County for whom there is no room in the jail are booked, fingerprinted, assigned a court date and released. In many cases, he said, they don’t show up to court.

“The failure-to-appears are already going through the roof,” said Dickerson.

County commissioners are still hoping that a last-ditch effort to secure three years’ worth of funding for the jail comes through in the form of a proposed $7.07 million operating levy. Petitioners are collecting signatures to demonstrate public support for another levy effort.

But voters soundly rejected a four-year levy with the same yearly rate as this year’s proposed measure — just under 58 cents per $1,000 of assessed property value — last November, and the commissioners have said they want to see 750 to 1,000 signatures in support of a second levy effort before they go ahead and place a new measure on the ballot.

“We’re not going to be able to guide this,” Commissioner Earl Fisher said of the levy effort before the board meeting Wednesday. He said any campaign will have to be “grassroots,” although he added that the county commissioners will support it as “cheerleaders” rather than leading the charge as they did last year.

The intergovernmental agreement was approved as part of the commissioners’ “consent agenda,” a series of items considered uncontroversial that is typically passed as a package, with little to no discussion, at each regular meeting.

Under the agreement, the county commissioners will have to give 30 days’ notice before the jail beds in Dallas become available. They are not required to rent beds if they choose, although the agreement makes that option available.

The Polk County Board of Commissioners will also have to sign off on the agreement before it can take effect April 1.

Polk County Sheriff Bob Wolfe said he has discussed the agreement with the commissioners in his county, adding, “I don’t anticipate any reason why they wouldn’t approve it.”

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