A felony arrest for methamphetamine doesn't guarantee a night in jail anymore.

A felony arrest for methamphetamine doesn't guarantee a night in jail anymore.

Too much crime and not enough jail beds mean authorities must often release suspects not long after they've been handcuffed. So far this year, the Jackson County Jail was forced to release 820 inmates early because of overcrowding.

"It's now, more than ever, a revolving door," said Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau. "It's almost like the threat of jail is losing its deterrent."

The problem of forced releases has been worsening for years, said Budreau, who described it as the "new normal."

On St. Patrick's Day weekend, 78 suspects were lodged in the Jackson County Jail, but 70 inmates, including two facing charges of felony possession of methamphetamine, got cut loose because of overcrowding.

Forced releases included those arrested for furnishing liquor to a minor, disorderly conduct, concealing a weapon, resisting arrest, assault, trespassing and harassment.

Inmates released early are required to appear in court at a later date, but many don't show up and are issued failure-to-appear warrants for their arrest.

Contributing to the jail's burden is a surge in crime locally, leading to a 19 percent increase in inmate lodgings over the past three years. The growing number of prisoners related to high-profile, violent crimes make up 14 percent of the 230-bed jail, leaving less room for new prisoners.

Some of the released prisoners leave jail only to commit new crimes within hours or days.

"What message does this send out?" Budreau said. "It's a frustration a lot of us are having in law enforcement right now."

Budreau said it is particularly frustrating to see suspects released who were arrested for more serious crimes, such as methamphetamine possession or burglary.

The Jackson County Sheriff's Department plans to add 60 more jail beds when it moves out of its cramped, 8,900-square-foot headquarters in downtown Medford to a new 30,000-square-foot facility at 5179 Crater Lake Highway. The existing jail will be remodeled to increase total capacity to 290 prisoners.

But because the department doesn't have the $1 million annually it would take to accommodate the extra inmates, the new beds may sit empty.

"It's frustrating for everyone," said sheriff's spokeswoman Andrea Carlson. "We'd all like to see more funding in the future. We may have to look at a levy."

Sheriff corrections Lt. Christine Bronson said the jail assesses which prisoners might pose the least threat to the public before they are released.

Often, prisoners who have been involved in more violent crimes push out prisoners with victimless offenses, she said.

When Medford police sweep through local bars, they often pick up people who are on parole or who have warrants, which fills the jail, Bronson said.

Over St. Patrick's Day weekend, 56 of the 78 people lodged at the jail had been arrested by Medford officers.

Jackson County does have a jail relief valve that most other counties don't have: The 176-bed Community Justice Transition Center in Talent.

Community Justice Director Shane Hagey said the center is designed to help ease prisoners back into the community.

Many prisoners work during the day and return at night to the center. Others perform community work such as cleaning up along the freeway.

Still others are just getting out of prison and require transitional housing as they learn how to reenter the community.

"As a whole, Jackson County is one of the most fortunate counties," Hagey said.

In previous years, the county attempted to rent jail bed space in other counties, but that proved too costly, he said.

Hagey said it might be necessary for some law enforcement agencies to consider giving more citations instead of lodgings, and that all agencies need to work together to come up with solutions to overcrowding in the jail.

"I don't agree with the position that it is the sheriff's problem," he said.

Beth Heckert, deputy district attorney, said a lack of adequate jail facilities has not necessarily impacted the court system. But she acknowledged that someone force-released on Friday might not show up to court on Monday.

"Cases are more likely to get resolved in a quicker manner if they are still lodged," she said.

Heckert said the situation with jail overcrowding has changed people's reactions to spending time behind bars.

"The prospect of jail for people who have never been to jail is a deterrent," she said. "When someone is in and out of jail numerous times, it is no longer a deterrent."

Medford police Chief Tim George said his officers don't send every suspect to jail.

"We cite and release a ton of people on top of the people we lodge," he said.

Medford detectives, who handle the most severe crimes in the city, lodged 142 suspects in 2011, but cited and released 158.

George ruled out the possibility of Medford building its own jail facility along the lines of a 100-bed jail built with a bond measure in Springfield.

The Lane County jail has 507 beds, but 156 are not being used because of a lack of funding. Additional budget problems could take another 151 beds out of commission.

George said there is a direct connection between jail bed availability and crime.

He said those kept in jail aren't able to commit further crimes. In numerous cases, he said, Medford police have arrested an individual several times because of the revolving door at the jail.

"There is no question the lack of jail space has definitely increased crime in the valley," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email dmann@mailtribune.com.