Officials say there's no single reason for forced freeing of county inmates

The number of inmates released from the Washington County Jail because of overcrowding has increased dramatically since January after years of steady declines.

So far, 177 inmates have been freed through a process called “forced release” this year. That compares to none in 2012, one in 2011 and 88 in 2010.

Such releases had numbered in the thousands in the mid-2000s before the county instituted a number of reforms recommended by an outside consultant and others.

Washington County law enforcement officials are not overly concerned about the sudden increase at this time, saying the number is still a very small fraction of all releases from the jail.

At the same time, Marie Tyler, the chief deputy in the Washington County Sheriff’s Office, said conversations are beginning within the criminal justice system about whether the jail should be expanded and, if so, when and how to fund it. The sheriff’s office operates the jail.

“All of our partners in the system are starting to talk about it. There’s no magic number when we say now’s the time, but we don’t want to be caught acting too late, either,” said Tyler.

But Dean Smith, a Washington County public defender, said the county did not implement all the recommendations from the outside consultant, David Bennett. Smith said the county might be able to postpone expanding the jail even longer by substantially enhancing its pre-trial services program, as recommended in Bennett’s 2005 report.

“The county did not do everything the report recommends to reduce overcrowding,” Smith said.

Tyler agreed, but added that the pre-trial services enhancements recommended by Bennett were deemed too expensive by county leaders. She noted that the reforms instituted in the mid-2000s — including those proposed by others in the criminal justice system — put the forced releases on a downward trajectory until this year.

The report said enhancing pre-trial services would provide benefits throughout the system, however.

No single reason for release increase

The jail is located in the Washington County Law Enforcement Center at 215 S.W. Adams St. in Hillsboro. It opened in 1998 and was designed to be expanded in stages if necessary.

Matt Fohnert, the jail’s operations lieutenant, said there is no single reason for the dramatic increase in releases. Instead, he said it is the result of many factors — ranging from changing jailhouse demographics to case-by-case decisions by Washington County Circuit Court judges.

“There’s not one thing we can point to and say, ‘That explains it,’” said Fohnert.

According to Fohnert, even this year’s higher number is well below the forced releases that occurred before Washington County opened its current jail in 1998. It has 572 beds. The jail it replaced had only 200 beds, resulting in many more releases because of overcrowding.

“It used to be 5,000 or so a year back then,” he recalled.

New laws stiffening penalties for crimes more likely to be committed by women helps explain some of the increased releases. Ballot measures approved by voters have required more jail time for forged checks, shoplifting and other non-violent crimes. That has increased the percent of women being sentenced to jail from under 10 percent to around 25 percent in recent years.

But the jail was not designed to hold that many female inmates. It has only 84 beds for women, compared to 488 for men. As a result, the women’s section of the jail has gotten overcrowded several times this year already, resulting in the forced release of female inmates.

Despite the uptick in forced releases, Fohnert said the number of inmates released because of overcrowding is still a small percent of the overall releases that occur for other reasons, such as being bailed out. Several other counties in Oregon are currently being forced to release many more inmates every month because of overcrowding.

“Forced releases are just 1.6 percent of all releases so far (this year). It’s a really small number,” he said.

Reducing risk to public

In recent weeks, jail staff have been forced to release inmates charged with theft, felon in possession of a weapon, possession of stolen property, interfering with public transportation, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct, drunk driving and parole violations.

Jail staff work to release inmates who have the strongest ties to the community and who pose the lowest safety risk to the public when compared to other inmates in custody, officials said. This is done through risk assessment that takes into account such things as an inmate’s prior criminal record, employment history, available housing and family in the area.

The assessment gives higher scores to inmates with prior criminal convictions for violent and drug-related crimes and to those who are repeat offenders.

“Domestic violence is a crime that decreases the likelihood of release because of the risk to the victim,” Fohnert said.

Jail staff also attempt to hold all inmates charged with failing to appear on previous charges until their first court appearance, although that is not always possible, officials noted.

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