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Jail packed with inmates facing serious charges

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Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneThe Jackson County Jail is holding large numbers of inmates charged with murder and other serious crimes after COVID-19 safety restrictions on courts led to a backlog of cases.
Pandemic-mandated restrictions on courts created a huge backlog of cases — and a jail full of Measure 11 defendants

COVID-19 safety restrictions that slowed down the courts have left the Jackson County Jail packed with defendants charged with serious crimes such as murder and the sexual abuse of children.

Although restrictions have been lifted, the backlog of cases is taking a toll on defendants, overloaded prosecutors, defense attorneys, victims and their families.

“There’s a tremendous impact. Oftentimes, victims want to move on with their lives, and they’re not able to when a case is hanging over them,” said Medford police Detective Diane Sandler, who investigates crimes against children. “I think more than anything, they are feeling there’s no resolution.”

Some defendants have been in jail for two, three, four and almost five years as they await trial or a plea agreement to resolve their cases.

John Thomas Shone, accused of causing a woman’s death while driving under the influence of intoxicants, has been in custody for nearly five years — the most of any current inmate. He’s spent much of that time undergoing psychological evaluations at the Oregon State Hospital, according to jail and court records.

In custody for nearly four years, Kevin Dean Hicks Sr. is charged with murder and second-degree abuse of a corpse for allegedly killing his estranged wife and trying to dispose of her body in a trailer fire. He has also been psychologically evaluated, records show.

Accused of sex crimes against children younger than 12, Matthew Robert Miksche has been in jail for more than three years, and Louis Benino Padilla has been jailed for more than two-and-a-half years.

John Tobe Larson has been jailed for nearly three years for allegedly trying to hire a hit man who turned out to be a federal agent.

James Calvin Patterson has been in jail for more than three years. He’s awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to weapons charges. Federal prosecutors say he’s a violent career criminal who tried to shoot two Medford police officers, but his gun snagged on his waistband and he couldn’t get it loaded in time.

Of the 261 people in the Jackson County Jail last week, 117 were being held on Measure 11 charges that include murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, assault, sexual offenses, robbery and arson, according to Jackson County Sheriff’s Office data.

Oregon voters passed Measure 11 in 1994 to set mandatory-minimum prison sentences for people convicted of certain serious crimes.

COVID-19-related court delays have pushed the population of Measure 11 defendants in the Jackson County Jail to almost half of inmates.

“The biggest impact is we have so many people per capita charged with Measure 11 crimes. That doesn’t allow us an opportunity to house people on lesser charges,” said Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Captain Josh Aldrich. “For people arrested for property crimes, they’re just getting out the same day. That has an impact on the community. We don’t have the space to keep them.”

Some prosecutors have had to double-up on murder cases, and some public defenders have had to stop taking on new defendants.

“We have zero bandwidth. Many public defenders are maxed out on the cases they can ethically take on,” said Medford lawyer Matt Rowan, who handles criminal defense and civil cases.

Inside the jail

The inside of the Jackson County Jail is dimly lit in an effort to keep inmates calm. The low lights also make it harder for inmates to see through the tinted windows of their living quarters to watch corrections deputies or communicate with other inmates farther away.

Dim lighting and tinted windows prevent Jackson County Jail inmates from watching corrections deputies in the halls. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune

They spend part of their days napping, talking to other inmates in their living areas, using the phone, reading, watching television or hand-writing letters and motions for their legal cases. Some are kept in isolation.

Twice a week, inmates can go outside to a small, walled-in area of the jail roof. They can’t see any trees, but a patch of sky is visible through metal screening high overhead.

Holes in the wall show where a basketball hoop was attached before it was taken down because of too many fights during games. Deputies don’t give them anything to play with, but inmates sometimes take off their socks, roll them into balls and play volleyball or football-style games.

“They get imaginative. If we give them things, it causes fights,” said Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Marty Tlascala.

Inmates can have outside time in the concrete recreation yard twice a week. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune

Inmates who aren’t accused of crimes that resulted in death can earn the right to work in the jail kitchen, do laundry or clean. The pay is $1 a day. Most spend their earnings on video phone calls or commissary snacks such as cookies, crackers and candy bars, Tlascala said.

“They like to work. It gives them something to do besides watch TV. It makes the days go by faster,” he said.

Some inmates pass time in the Jackson County Jail by reading. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune

Lengthy stays can take a toll on a defendant’s mental health.

“We do have to constantly watch people who’ve been here for years,” Tlascala said. “Sometimes they can develop suicidal tendencies. We have software to track their food intake to make sure they’re eating. For example, if they’ve missed every meal for the last seven days we have to ask what’s going on. Deputies will talk to them and ask, ‘Where’s your head at?’”

A holding cell in the Jackson County Jail. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune

Defendants facing serious charges and potentially long prison sentences sometimes resort to desperate measures.

“They have less to lose. Our staff does a great job catching discussions about escape plans or assault plans. They search to make sure no one is making weapons,” Aldrich said.

People accused of violent crimes aren’t necessarily more violent in jail than other inmates. In cases like murder and manslaughter, they have probably not committed that crime before. Some can be model inmates in jail, Tlascala said.

But the prolonged stays have caused trouble, he said.

“There have been more assaults, not so much on staff, but on each other. They get irritated and bored and try to fight each other,” Tlascala said.

On the other hand, longer stays and less turnover among inmates during the COVID-19 pandemic eased some sources of tension. The introduction of new inmates into the jail population can stir up trouble, said Jackson County Sheriff’s Office Deputy David Dalton, who’s been a corrections deputy for 24 years.

“It’s been easier in certain ways. They know each other better,” he said.

Corrections deputies have to be careful to keep inmates apart who don’t get along. They try to establish stable groupings.

A Jackson County Jail inmate under observation sleeps on the floor. Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune

While some inmates are fighting to be found not guilty, others would rather resolve their cases and move on to prisons, which are larger and offer more programs and space.

“You can see the boredom. A portion of these people have a desire to get through the court process and move on. Others are trying to stall,” Aldrich said. “In jail, there are less opportunities for programs, but there is a true fear of prison. Once they’re found guilty and sentenced, that’s a reality they don’t want to face.”

Many have been in prison before for short or long stays, Tlascala said.

The Jackson County Jail had hoped to offer a medication-assisted treatment program for inmates struggling with addiction. They would have received prescriptions to help ease withdrawal symptoms and curb drug cravings, while living with a small group of fellow inmates committed to bettering their lives, Tlascala said.

But the space meant for the program had to be turned into a quarantine area when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. Jail leaders hope to start the program once conditions stabilize.

Short of space and undersized for Jackson County’s population, the jail had little room for supportive programs even before the pandemic. In 2020, county voters overwhelmingly rejected a property tax hike to build and operate a large new jail.

Tlascala noted county jails aren’t meant to hold inmates for years on end. They are mainly holding places for those accused of crimes. If defendants are convicted, they’re supposed to serve sentences of less than a year in jail or sentences of more than a year in state or federal prison.

In reality, the Jackson County Jail is rarely used to punish convicted people serving short sentences. Last week, only two people in jail were serving sentences, sheriff’s office data shows.

Another 32 were in jail after violating the terms of their parole or probation — another type of punishment after conviction.

But most of the 261 inmates in jail are facing charges for Measure 11 crimes, other felonies or misdemeanors.

Of the 111 facing Measure 11 charges, 19 are accused of murder, seven face attempted murder charges, two are accused of manslaughter and 46 face sexual offense charges. Another 43 are charged with other serious crimes, according to the sheriff’s office.

Prosecutors under strain

Jackson County District Attorney Beth Heckert said she has 13 prosecutors experienced enough to take on the most serious cases like murder. Normally, they would handle only one murder case at a time.

“Everyone is doubled up. Some have tripled up,” she said.

Trials were canceled in Jackson County Circuit Court in April 2020 in the early days of the pandemic, then resumed with only one trial allowed at a time so people could be physically spaced out inside the building.

“It slowed the whole system down. Jurors were nervous to be in court around other people. Getting jurors to come in was another issue. They would call and say they had health problems,” Heckert said.

Court operations have since returned to normal, but the backlog remains.

Heckert said murder cases that once took one to one-and-a-half years to resolve through a trial or a plea agreement now take two years or longer.

Except in murder cases, defendants have a right to a speedy trial within 60 days under Oregon law. Most defendants waive that right because it’s to their advantage to have additional time to mount a defense, Heckert said.

Defendants dissatisfied with their defense attorneys can get them dismissed. New lawyers have to start from scratch, setting back the resolution of cases.

Lawyers can file a range of motions, including continuance requests to postpone hearings and trials, or ask to get a different judge assigned to a case. Some cases are delayed to send defendants to the Oregon State Hospital for psychological evaluations and care. The hospital itself faces a severe backlog.

Heckert said when defendants and attorneys are ready to go to trial after a delay, rescheduling experts for the defense and prosecution can be difficult because they’re booked out.

All the delays take a toll.

“In addition to it being a problem for us, there’s an impact on the victim as well,” Heckert said. “We’ve run into serious cases that were delayed so long the victim doesn’t want to participate anymore. They’ve hung with us for two to three years, and it’s been continued and continued. They tell us they can’t do it anymore, and we have to dismiss the case.”

For all victims, but especially children, it’s hard to start the healing process when a trial is looming, said Sandler, the Medford Police Department detective who investigates cases of physical and sexual abuse of kids.

“Oftentimes, the hardest part for a child is facing the person who did this to them. In some cases, I’ve had victims decide to move on,” she said. “They’ve thanked me for my work on the case and the time I’ve put into it, but they say, ‘I’m done.’”

Sandler said her heart has been broken by some of the cases that had to be dismissed.

“COVID didn’t help anything. There has always been an issue of delay with these cases. Now it’s ludicrous,” she said.

‘A tidal wave is coming’

Oregon has an organized system of district attorney offices staffed with lawyers to prosecute cases. But it relies on a hodgepodge of contracts with scattered lawyers who serve as public defenders for clients too poor to hire their own lawyers.

Some lawyers who specialize in defense band together in what are called public defender offices. But Oregon is the only state that relies entirely on contractors.

Public defenders earn less than prosecutors, and don’t get benefits such as health insurance and retirement pay from the state, said Rowan, the Medford lawyer who specializes in criminal defense and civil cases.

The state has only 31% of the public defenders it needs. Each one would have to work more than 26 hours per weekday to cover the caseload, according to a report by the American Bar Association.

“COVID is compounding issues that are going to come to a head, the big one being the lack of public defense providers,” Rowan said.

The state is proposing a new public defender contract that puts restrictions on the outside legal work lawyers can take on. Lawyers would also be forced to travel to neighboring counties to handle cases, Rowan said.

“The pay is so low ... most of us do public defense work because we believe in the Constitution and providing legal services. You can’t make a living off public defense work. You have to be able to subsidize it with other types of cases,” he said.

Rowan said the work lawyers do for paying clients in criminal and civil cases pays the bills.

He said no local public defenders are willing to sign the contract as proposed by the state. The criminal justice system could grind to a halt in July.

“Southern Oregon is going to have zero public defense attorneys,” he said. “The wheels of justice only operate if the prosecution cog and the defense cog are turning. Everyone has the constitutional right to an attorney.”

Rowan said the courts will have to dismiss cases if defendants can’t get defense attorneys.

“If this is not rectified, accused murderers and rapists will be released back onto the streets,” he said.

Rowan said the space limitations at the jail due to its small size and the buildup of Measure 11 inmates means lower-level defendants aren’t kept in jail. He’s had clients rack up dozens of property-crime charges as they get arrested and released from jail over and over. That adds to the workload on lawyers and impacts to the community.

Rowan predicted the worst is yet to come as the Oregon criminal justice system strains under the weight of the COVID-19 backlog and long-term problems.

“The analogy I will use with the COVID situation is that it’s identical to a tsunami. At first, all the water gets sucked out, and you see this endless beach,” he said. “Now the tidal wave is coming.”

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.