Commissioners take first step in responding to criminal justice system study on the county jailIn one of the first concrete responses to a recent study of Clatsop County's criminal justice system, the county commissioners are considering creating a new position to oversee the system that determines early releases from the county jail.

Commission Chairwoman Helen Westbrook made the proposal last week, and asked County Administrator Scott Derickson to gather information in time for discussion at the board's next meeting.

The new position, if approved, will be responsible for scoring local offenders under the county jail's matrix system, which ranks inmates based on the seriousness of their crimes and other factors to determine which people to release from the jail when the facility is full.

The county recently commissioned a study of the local criminal justice system by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC). In the resulting report, consultants Billy Wasson and Larry Bacon agreed that the jail is too small and poorly designed to meet the county's needs, but pointed to other problems in the justice system that need fixing, one of which was the matrix.

The matrix system was put in place in 2001 to provide an objective basis to evaluate inmates that would reduce the jail's liability in the event a released inmate committed a new offense.

The NIC study revealed concerns by several local law enforcement officials that the scoring system is not being applied accurately or consistently by jail staff, who must keep track of inmates' matrix scores in addition to other duties.

With the scoring being handled by various staff members at the jail, it's questioned whether the inmates' scores are being tallied the same way, Westbrook said. And with staff trying to do the scoring in between their other duties, scores aren't updated as often as they should be, she said.

The problem hasn't resulted in dangerous offenders being let out by mistake, but may have kept some people behind bars longer than they would have been, had their scores been updated, Westbrook said.

"The matrix scores change as they serve their time, and participate in different programs," she said. "When you go to the matrix, you want to be sure you have an accurate scoring system."

The new position will be responsible for checking various databases, including the Law Enforcement Data System (LEDS), to update offenders' scores in a timely manner. It will still be up to jail staff, however, to decide who actually gets released, Westbrook said.

Westbrook doesn't see the new position necessarily helping ease the jail overcrowding problem - the county will need the matrix system, and someone to administer it, even with a new, bigger jail, she said.

"I don't think anybody is planning on it freeing up beds in any way," she said.

Each new offender lodged at the jail is evaluated for their matrix score, a process that can take jail staff between 15 and 40 minutes per inmate, according to jail commander Lt. Ron Stevens.

"It's a matter of cutting back and finding time for someone to do it," he said. "It's not complicated, but it's time-consuming."

Most difficult is finding out information on crimes the person may have committee outside Oregon, and often the staff doesn't have the time to check that out, Stevens said.

In addition to the offender's current crime, the matrix system weighs past criminal history, whether drugs or alcohol were involved in the crime, if the person has a local job or attends school, if they have failed to appear for court dates in the past, and other factors.

Jail staff can override the matrix scores and order a person held who might otherwise qualify to be released. That can include people who the police believe may suffer from mental illness and need evaluations, suspects in domestic violence calls who may return to the victim, or illegal immigrants, Stevens said.

Other offenders are often ordered held by judges who want the people to serve longer portions of their sentences than they might otherwise.

For people released early, the jail staff tries to get them sent to house arrest or other forms of supervision, but often those programs are full too.

"Sometimes a person's score is so low we just kick them out the door," he said.

Stevens said he believes the jail is keeping the most dangerous people behind bars. "For the most part, people are scored correctly," he said. "We make a mistake here or there. Mostly we just need help."

Along with the matrix assistant, Westbrook said the commissioners will also consider providing additional support to the Public Safety Coordinating Council to collect and organize data on the local offender population. The NIC report noted that the council, which represents local police agencies, courts and the district attorney and parole and probation offices, suffers from not having usable, up-to-date information.


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