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Economy Forces Oregon Jails to Eliminate Beds

Commissioners in Marion County, Oregon voted on October 19, 2011 to cut 128 jail beds, closing one pod and reducing the jail’s capacity to 400 prisoners. In reality, however, only 56 beds were cut because the county is reopening 72 work center beds that had been downsized previously due to budget cuts. The commissioners also eliminated five guard positions at the jail that were vacant.

The changes came in response to a $600,000 state funding reduction during the 2011-2012 fiscal year, according to Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers. Work release is half as expensive as detaining offenders in jail, he noted. For example, prisoners on work release must pay for their own medical care but those in jail receive medical treatment at the county’s expense.

The loss of jail beds is not expected to cause a mass exodus of prisoners, Myers stated. The county will use a risk-assessment tool to determine the risk of reoffending posed by each jail and work center prisoner. When the jail is at capacity, the lowest risk offenders will be released; most affected prisoners, however, will be transferred from jail to the work center.

“It’s disappointing we have to close jail beds,” said Commissioner Patti Milne. “There’s always going to be a risk of the public discomfort, and we don’t want that.”

Marion County is not the only county forced to eliminate jail beds, according to Clatsop County Sheriff Tom Bergin, who serves on the executive committee of the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association. For example, 2011 budget deficits forced Lane County officials to cut 84 beds at the county’s jail in Eugene, Oregon.

“When you start taking things away from us that we’ve been using to make the community safe, that runs the risk of more criminal activity,” said Bergin. “Once a machine is working efficiently, you don’t change the gears in it.”

As the economy remains sluggish, however, the machinery of the criminal justice system may need to be retooled. In February 2012, the Linn County Sheriff’s Office announced that it was cutting 22 positions and 48 jail beds. The reductions are expected to save the county $1.5 million.

“Not in my worst nightmare did I think it would come to this,” said Linn County Sheriff Tim Mueller. “Sadly, this is the only way we can make it through to the next fiscal year 2012-13.” Of course no one in a position of authority seems to question whether mass incarceration is necessary in the first place.

Sources: The Oregonian,

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