Talk about releasing lower risk prison inmates draws fire from DA, sheriff

Gov. Kitzhaber’s goal to reduce the number of so-called low-risk offenders in Oregon’s prison system, and hence save resources to bolster public education, is making local legislators and public safety providers nervous.

Columbia County District Attorney Stephen Atchison and Sheriff Jeff Dickerson both said they expect Kitzhaber’s call to action on prison populations, which had been born out of a public safety commission he had convened last May, to lead to further strain on a county jail already hamstrung by cuts.

“The state would be putting these people into the county system and relying on the county to provide beds, and I said, ‘Good luck with that,’” Dickerson said.

Early statements from the governor’s office, including Kitzhaber’s State of the State address at the opening of the current legislative session, indicate a plan to change sentencing laws by classifying some state prisoners as posing a lower risk and hence eligible for early release. As part of a budgetary strategy that also includes overhauls to health care, if it gained traction in the Legislature it could free up money for the state’s underfunded public education system.

There has already been public relations pushback from Scappoose-based Sen. Betsy Johnson, who in December delivered a highly critical speech of the governor’s plan at the Oregon District Attorneys Association annual meeting, imploring the group to reject the governor’s proposal. In her speech, Johnson pointed out that some of the nonviolent offenders on Kitzhaber’s list include those with assault and kidnapping convictions. Atchison agreed there are few nonviolent offenders in the state prison system, and said some on the list had committed even more serious crimes, including murder.

Releasing prison parolees back into communities would force local agencies, such as Columbia County Community Corrections and Sheriff’s Office, to monitor the releases and ensure they were meeting post-prison program goals. If not and a parolee reoffended, the burden would fall to local agencies for policing and incarceration.

Adding to budget problems

The Columbia County Jail, due to budget problems, is already working under a matrix system that has its own scoring system to release offenders in the event of a population emergency, an occurrence that happens more than once per week, Dickerson said, when the inmate count reaches 150.

When the matrix program started last year, the jail had been staffed at 24 working in the jail, a figure that has since been trimmed to 18, Dickerson said.

“We’re trying to make it work, but it’s a challenge. We have significant overtime,” he said.

Adding to complications is that judges in Columbia County Circuit Court have the option of sanctioning drug court participants to jail in the event of violations. Drug court is a justice program that allows nonviolent drug offenders options beyond extensive jail sentences. But jail sentences do occur should a drug court participant slip, and the judges are identifying them as exclusions to the matrix program.

Dickerson said he understands the need to demonstrate consequences for repeat drug offenses, but said it results in challenges when deciding who to release.

“It’s putting pressure on us when it comes to matrixing out people, because the judges don’t want to matrix those people, so we have to release other people,” he said.

The jail houses a mix of federal inmates, most from the U.S. Marshall’s Service that contributes $1.8 million to the total $3.6 million jail budget, and local offenders. Eighty-five beds are held for federal prisoners and 65 are reserved for the local population, half of which are excluded from the matrix system, Dickerson said.

Factor in the potential for local prison parolees under the governor’s proposal, and he said he foresees a time in the near future when more-risky offenders, including those incarcerated for sex crimes, could end up on the matrix list.

Not much faith in state promises

Dickerson also said he hasn’t placed much stock in state promises to offset added expenses with additional state funding, referencing a trend in reduced state funding from 1995’s Senate Bill 1145, which resulted in counties taking over probation and parole responsibilities from the state with the promise the state would provided expense reimbursement and funding to remodel jails.

“The money continues to dwindle from the state for that program, so whatever the state is promising right now, there’s no guarantee that money’s going to be there,” Dickerson said.

Atchison said he believes the premise that there are people in prison who don’t belong there is fundamentally flawed.

“I think the DAs, as a whole, disagree with that,” he said. “We believe that pretty much everybody in prison deserves to be there.”

He pointed out that most people who end up in state prison, including drug offenders — many who are higher-level dealers — have already exhausted alternative treatment options such as deferred sentencing, diversions and drug court. Once back in the community, the funding burden to find justice solutions for the released prison inmates would fall to local agencies, he said.

“What will happen is we’ll have to find local options...and I don’t know how we’re going to afford them,” he said.

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