EUGENE — Sixteen Lane County inmates walked free in the middle of a news conference on Friday, part of an event designed by an Oregon sheriff to emphasize the need for more money at his jail.
"We are releasing nearly 100 (inmates) a week, and we specifically timed this event so you can see this event firsthand," said Sheriff Tom Turner. "We do this every day."
The inmates scrambled to get away from attending news crews and photographers, going so far as to jump through bushes, The Eugene Register-Guard reported.
Turner said the releases are done because of shortages and budget cuts, something rooted in both Oregon's budget deficit and the expiration of federal payments to timber-dependent counties.
The closed beds force jailers to release people accused of crimes, but not tried, as well as those who have been convicted of crimes before they have served their full sentences. Many of those released before trial fail to show up for their court dates.
The most illustrative example for Turner's campaign is a Junction City man suspected of more than 50 crimes over five months, mainly burglaries and car break-ins. The man was arrested but released from the Lane County Jail five times during that period.
After each arrest, Junction City police Chief Mark Chase said the man returned to Junction City and committed more crimes. After a final arrest, the man was sent to state prison for nearly six years.
Chase said the city's crime rate immediately dropped.
Turner estimated that, with its present staffing, the jail will release more than 5,000 inmates during the fiscal year, which began last July. Already, 3,500 inmates have been released because of a lack of jail beds, and Turner said 500 of them are suspected of committing crimes after they were released.
"These criminals pose a serious threat to our community," Turner said. "Those being released early are being held for violent crimes, such as rape, manslaughter, assault and robbery."
The levy vote is May 21.
Formal opposition hasn't coalesced around the vote. Area Democrats say they support the provisions in the levy that provide for more juvenile detention and treatment beds, along with more adult jail beds.
County Republican Party officials said they would prefer to see the state reform its pension system to bring down the cost of incarceration before contributing more tax dollars to local governments.
It's difficult to convince voters to approve a tax increase, partly because some people don't trust government to spend their tax money as promised, said Steve Candee, a Lane Community College political science instructor. said.
Yet the repeated mention of the early release of inmates could sway some voters to support the levy, he said.
"I would call that the fear factor," Candee said. "It becomes a campaign tactic."