Holding Pattern

Local law enforcement agencies oppose state plan for prisoner jail time

You won't find many fans in local law enforcement of a proposed state Senate bill calling for an increase in the amount of time inmates can serve in county jails to shore up funds for the state's prison system.

Oregon Senate Bill 728 is intended to save the state's floundering prison system by shifting inmates to county jail beds. Currently, the Legislature estimates there are 1,000 unused jail beds across the state.

The bill will increase the amount of time an inmate can stay in a county jail from one to two years.

Gov. John Kitzhaber's budget proposes a 3.4 percent decrease in the Department of Corrections funding. The shortfall will leave the prison system without the ability to maintain its current services.

The Department of Corrections reports that the average daily cost for an inmate in state prisons is approximately $84.

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Winters said the cost to house a prisoner in his jail is between $70 and $100 per day. Winters said most prisoners cost in the $70 range, with the higher-needs inmates costing more.

However, the bill could prove problematic for sheriffs if they see an increase in traffic in their jails.

"We have all the inmates we can handle right now," Winters said. "It would be a burden for us to lodge more that are coming from state prisons."

Winters said Jackson County has released more than 300 inmates early so far this year because of overcrowding. Those who are granted early release are non-violent offenders, he said.

"They couldn't put more people in the jail even if they wanted to," Winters said.

However, Klamath County Sheriff Tim Evinger said he does have empty beds in his jail, but he does not support the bill.

"Our problem is that we don't have the funds to fully staff the jail," Evinger said. "We are busy trying to lodge local criminals. I don't think it's a good idea for us to take in prisoners from state prisons."

Evinger said his obligation is to deal with crime in his county, not use resources to watch inmates from other jurisdictions.

Winters said the bill is the result of reckless spending at the state level.

"They are trying to push the burden on the counties," Winters said. "Jackson County has done a good job keeping afloat during the downturn. We shouldn't have to shoulder another burden."

Medford police Chief Randy Schoen said he does not support the bill because his officers have seen a bump in repeat offenders because the jail is forced to release inmates early.

"Even though those released are the non-violent offenders, we still have to handle them when they commit new crimes after being released early," Schoen said.

A few weeks ago, Medford police placed a suicidal man in treatment on a mental hold only to have him released after a few hours. The man then appeared several hours later trying to run into traffic on Barnett Road. Officers lodged him in the Jackson County Jail on a disorderly conduct charge. He was then released within hours because of overcrowding.

"We are dealing with the same people multiple times in one afternoon," Schoen said. "We need to keep jail space to house repeat offenders."

Winters said the jail is currently under remodel to add about 60 additional beds.

"But those beds will be quickly absorbed by local inmates," Winters said. "We entered into the remodel with the intention of housing local criminals, not ones from state prisons."

Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 541-776-4471; or e-mail cconrad@mailtribune.com.

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