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Jail, court system cope with COVID aftermath

As the rest of the community begins to return to something approaching “normal,” the situation inside the Jackson County Jail is still stuck in a pandemic time warp. The closing of courtrooms during the height of the pandemic forced delays in trials. Those have resumed now, but the backlog means defendants charged with serious crimes are still behind bars, in some cases years after their arrests.

An outdated and undersized jail that was continuously overcrowded before COVID-19 is even more inadequate now. Of 261 people in the jail last week, 117 were facing Measure 11 charges — serious crimes that include murder, assault, sex offenses, robbery and arson and carry mandatory minimum sentences.

The seriousness of the charges mean those inmates cannot be released pending trial. So they sit in a jail that was never designed for long-term incarceration. And those newly arrested for property crimes such as burglary and theft are released almost immediately because there is no room to house them in jail.

Normally, people sentenced to less than a year behind bars serve their time in the county jail, while those sentenced to more than a year go to state prison.

Last week, only two jail inmates were serving a sentence. All the rest were either waiting for trial or jailed for violating terms of their parole or probation.

The jail is essentially a pretrial holding facility. But it has become a long-term home for too many.

Among the Measure 11 defendants, some have been locked up for three, four or even five years — all without being convicted because they haven’t been to trial yet.

Two years ago, Jackson County voters were asked to pay higher taxes to build a new, larger jail. They overwhelmingly voted no. Many objected to spending money for incarceration rather than expanded treatment for mental health issues and alcohol and drug addiction.

Jail officials had hoped to expand those services even in the existing jail, but the need to quarantine inmates who tested positive for COVID-19 took away the needed space.

To be fair, even if voters had approved the new jail request, it wouldn’t have been built in time to avoid the effects of the pandemic. But the difficulty of coping with COVID-19 restrictions just illustrates the need for a new facility.

Another result of the pandemic trial backlog is a shortage of court-appointed defense attorneys — an issue the state must address or face the prospect of cases being dismissed because no public defenders are available to represent indigent defendants.

The Constitution guarantees criminal defendants the right to an attorney, the right to a speedy trial and the right to have their guilt or innocence decided by a jury. At this rate, Oregon is in danger of violating two out of three.