A year after voters rejected a bond measure to fund construction of a new county jail, the shortage of jail space is only growing more critical, said Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis.
Convicted lawbreakers are serving just a fraction of their sentences, and the inability of police, prosecutors and the courts to hold criminals accountable could have long-term repercussions, he said.
The problem doesn't affect people sentenced to state or federal prisons for major crimes like serious assaults or sexual crimes. But for repeat drunken-drivers, burglars and others arrested for lesser offenses, there's a growing awareness that if they do the crime, they won't do the time.
"We are losing credibility with the criminal subculture," Marquis said.
Statistics show that on average, offenders convicted in Clatsop County courts last year served only about one-third of their sentences in jail. Some convicts given penalties of three or even six months ended up serving less than a week behind bars. That doesn't automatically mean they're ending back out on the streets. In Clatsop County, offenders aren't technically sentenced to jail, but to the custody of the local "supervisory authority" - the Sheriff's Office and Community Corrections Department - who are responsible for choosing the right combination of jail time and other forms of punishment such as house-arrest or the county work crew.
But the lack of jail space puts pressure on those other programs as more and more people are released before their full sentences are up, Marquis said.
"We are trying to hold the system together with bailing wire and Scotch tape," he said.
Failed bondOvercrowding in the county jail was the No. 1 issue highlighted by local officials when they sought voter approval in November 2002 for a $15.7 million bond measure to fund construction of a new 140-bed jail. But voters weren't swayed, and turned down the bond by almost a 60-40 margin. In the wake of that defeat, there's been little new discussion about pursuing a new jail.
But the issue needs attention, said Marquis, who provided the jail-release statistics as evidence that the local criminal justice system is falling short in holding law-breakers accountable.
There are 64 beds available in the county jail and another 25 rented at the Tillamook County Jail. But inmates are still released on a regular basis before the end of their terms to make room for other offenders. Figures released by the Sheriff's Office showed that during the last six months of 2003, 175 inmates were booked and released and another 98 furloughed to house-arrest or the work crew because of overcrowding.
The situation is having an impact on his own office, which in some cases now seeks shorter sentences than it normally would, Marquis said. "It's pointless to recommend 90 days for a third DUII," even if the offense would normally warrant that kind of sentence, he said, given the likelihood that the offender would be released long before the end of the sentence.
Marquis pointed to one recent case in which his office recommended a 75-day jail term, 15 days less than the normal sentence, for a man convicted of drunken-driving - his third DUII in five years - with the condition that he not be eligible for an alternative sanction such as house-arrest. The man was sentenced to the 75 days, but was released from jail after 33 days.
House-arrest involves fitting offenders with an electronic bracelet that monitors their movements to ensure they don't leave their residences. It can keep track of their location, but can't ensure they're following all the rules, Marquis said - some house-arrestees have been obtaining drugs at their homes.
Juggling the available beds in the jail is done with the help of a "matrix" system, which scores each offender based on the seriousness of the crime, criminal background and ties to the community, among other factors. The system was implemented two years ago to provide an objective set of criteria for picking which inmates to release when space is needed for new offenders.
It's focused on rating a person's danger to the community, which is why some inmates sentenced to lengthy terms may be turned loose after just a few days, said jail commander Lt. Ron Stevens of the Clatsop County Sheriff's Office. If space isn't available in the house-arrest program or on the work crew, the person is simply released.
"It's a daily job managing our cap," he said. "If someone comes in, someone walks out."
The job of ranking each inmate has gotten much more difficult since the county lost its jail release officer, whose position was eliminated during recent state budget cuts. The release officer was able to conduct thorough background checks on inmates in jail waiting trial - now the jail staff must add that task to the rest of their duties, Stevens said.
A judge's viewClatsop County Circuit Court Judge Paula Brownhill said the jail issue doesn't affect the sentences handed down by the local courts, which are driven by state guidelines, but certainly affects how those sentences are served. In the cases of people awaiting trial, she and Judge Phil Nelson can overrule the matrix system and order criminal defendants held in jail, but that is typically done only in the most serious crimes.
"When we set bail at the arraignment, that has no effect on the jail staff - they just run the numbers through the system," she said.
Brownhill called the matrix system "adequate," adding that the loss of the jail release officer has made the process of evaluating offenders more difficult. She and other officials, including Marquis, are studying ways to restore the position, she said.
Along the release officer, the county also needs more probation officers, Marquis said, something that will require an investment from the county as well as the state.
"A good justice system is expensive, and it will cost more than we are spending now," he said.
The county is pursing the proposed Community Corrections transition center, a 30-bed residential facility for low-level offenders and released prisoners returning the community. It's designed to provide a stable environment offering substance-abuse treatment, job-search help and other services.
The transition center is planned for the North Coast Business Park in Warrenton, but has been blocked by the county's long-running dispute with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over alleged wetlands violations that was only recently settled.
'Educate voters'County Commission Chairwoman Helen Westbrook said the transition center project is currently the board of commissioners' focus. As a commissioner-elect in fall 2002, Westbrook told the other county commissioners that there did not appear to be enough grass-roots support for the jail bond. The outcome of the election, she said recently, appeared to bear that out.
"The message I got from the voters is that they need a lot more education on our needs, and need to be convinced this is something we need," she said.
The board hasn't ignored the jail issue since the failed bond campaign, but wants to see what impact the transition center has on the need for jail beds before revisiting the jail issue, Westbrook said.
"The jail issue has not gone off the commissioners' plate by any means," she said.
Marquis said the transition center is a worthy project, but on its own won't solve the jail-crowding issue. Many of those eligible for the program would not normally be sent to jail anyway, he said.
Brownhill said a combination of more jail space and alternative programs like the transition center are needed. Offenders should have access to programs that allow them to escape substance abuse, but there should be a stick along with the carrot.
"If it's either 'go to alcohol treatment or go to jail,' they are probably more likely to go to treatment," she said.