Grand jury investigates the Clatsop County jail; report to be released FridayYet another study of the Clatsop County jail has been completed. But this one comes from an unusual source - a local grand jury.

Jeannette Hayward said she and the other members of the seven-person panel were upset that many of the offenders they indicted were receiving little or no punishment. So after the end of their two-month assignment reviewing criminal cases, they launched their own investigation of the county jail.

The group will release the findings of its probe at a press conference Friday.

The jury called several county officials, including Sheriff John Raichl and county commission Chairwoman Helen Westbrook, to testify about the jail issue.

The panel also called District Attorney Josh Marquis, who said while grand juries in other Oregon counties have launched similar jail studies, this is the first in his memory in Clatsop County.

Grand juries are empaneled for two months to review criminal cases brought by the district attorney's office and decide whether they warrant formal indictments. One of the juries' tasks, mandated by state law, is to tour the county jail and sign off on a form stating that the facilities are adequate.

Signing that form is normally a formality, but when Hayward and her fellow jurors toured the jail April 15 near the end of their two-month stint, they decided they couldn't give their stamp of approval after learning that so many of the offenders they indicted were being turned loose early because of the lack of space.

Hayward, who wrote the final report, wouldn't reveal the jury's recommendations until the official release, but the panel was clearly worried about the shortage of jail beds.

"We were indicting people who were being (released) before they even had their first court appearance," she said. "People doing the crime are not doing the time."

The jail and its shortcomings have been the subject of several studies, but while the grand jury has no authority to require changes, Marquis thinks the panel's recommendations carry special weight.

"These are seven citizens drawn at random, who have given two months of their time. As they say, they have no dog in the fight," he said. "My hope would be that based on who (the study) is coming from, all of us in government and the criminal justice community would pay attention to it."

Marquis has long advocated for a new, bigger jail, but other than helping line up the officials called by the jury, he had no other role in the panel's probe, he said. As of Friday he had not seen the final report. "This is not the district attorney's grand jury," he said.

In addition to Raichl and Westbrook, the jury interviewed Chief Deputy Tom Bergin and Jail Commander Ron Stevens, as well as Circuit Court Judge Paula Brownhill and Community Corrections Director Danny Jordan.

The grand jury heard 79 cases in March and April, and the large majority involved drugs, said Hayward, who had never served on a jury before. Methamphetamines in particular figured in many of the cases, she said.

"I thought I was up on everything, but I did not understand how extreme the meth problem is - how easy it is to make, how easy it is to buy," she said. "All of us felt that the people in Clatsop County didn't realize the extent of the problem in the county. Education is a huge reason for our going forward and doing this report."

In 2002, county voters soundly rejected a $15 million bond measure to replace the 64-bed jail with a new 140-bed facility. Since then there's been little effort to take up the issue again, although in May the county commissioned a new study of the county's entire public criminal justice system.

Bergin said the grand jury did an "excellent job" researching the jail issue. During his interview with the panel, he spoke of the difficulty of holding law-breakers accountable when most know they'll probably serve only a day or two behind bars before being turned loose.

"They definitely had their eyes opened to how much crime there is in Clatsop County," he said. "I told them that if we could get all 30,000 people in Clatsop County to sit on a grand jury, we would have a new jail tomorrow."

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