There clearly is something deeply dysfunctional about Oregons current system of county jails. A solution is overdue.
Here in Clatsop County, there is a slow-boiling controversy over the long-term necessity for a decision matrix that determines which inmates are released when the jail is full. This results in a pattern of re-offense by some of the jails frequent fliers a problem persistent enough that The Daily Astorian could almost run a standing news column titled, Revolving door strikes again.
Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis has said law-abiding citizens are looking for someone to blame, but the blame is on the system, its a system problem. This is a system problem and we need a bigger jail.
But Oregons system of funding jail facilities and law enforcement in general is deeply flawed. Rural counties face huge bills for penal facilities, operations, upkeep and personnel but lack the tax base and/or voter willpower to provide enough jail cells for all those we want to keep in detention.
The most recent reminder of this comes from our neighbor to the east, Columbia County, where voters are poised to reject once again a jail levy.
The county sheriff, police chiefs and county commissioners say a levy defeat will force them to close the jail at the end of June and possibly make the county a haven for criminals, particularly thieves and burglars, according to a May 3 story in the Longview Daily News. Opponents, many of whom say they deeply distrust county officials in general, say levy proponents are just using scare tactics and will find a way to keep the lockup open.
Some opponents believe jail closure would pave the way for state imposition of an emergency tax over voter objections, a possibility that has been raised in Josephine and Curry counties in the states far southwestern corner. In light of long-term refusals by local voters in those counties to increase taxes for law enforcement, the Legislature last summer passed a law that allows public safety fiscal emergencies to be declared. County commissioners would have to agree in order for state funds to be matched by mandatory local taxes.
Columbia County commissioners say they wont cooperate with such an end-run around voters. Any set of commissioners who did so probably would not remain in office for long rendering the Legislatures idea fairly meaningless.
Although jails have always been county based to keep prisoners close to local courts, attorneys and their own families these widespread problems suggest a need for formal regional collaborations, statewide justice-funding measures and other ideas. In an age where prisoners can easily make court appearances via Internet-based video feeds, its time the state moved to seek the most efficient ways of running and funding local criminal-justice systems.
Initiatives that seek to get tough on crime are seriously undermined when there is no real certainty of punishment. Counties and the state must work together to solve these problems.