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The Emergency Population Release plan intends to keep the worst offenders behind bars at local jails

COURTESY PHOTO - Multnomah County Sheriff Mike Reese speaks before the approval of a new Emergency Population Release plan on Thursday, Nov. 15. Public dollars and apartment towers may solve the affordable housing crunch, but there's no end in sight for overcrowding in the area's least desirable real estate: Multnomah County jails.

A new plan approved Thursday, Nov. 15 by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners hopes to keep the worst offenders behind bars, even as officials acknowledge the county's downtown lock-up and North Portland jail will continue to operate at essentially full capacity.

"It is incredibly difficult on our staff working in the jail," Sheriff Mike Reese told commissioners during a board briefing Nov. 13. "Frankly, it's hard on the adults in our custody. It puts them in housing situations that are not ideal, and can hurt their recovery and our efforts at breaking the cycle of recidivism."

The new Emergency Population Release plan intends to prevent the forced release of anyone charged with a Measure 11 crimes such as murder, sodomy, rape, compelling prostitution or first-degree charges of manslaughter, kidnapping, assault, attempted murder or robbery.

Emergency releases often happen on nights or weekends, when Department of Community Justice staff are not as available to provide connections to services or alert victims. The new plan requires released inmates to check back in with DCJ staff, though about 24 percent of those entering the jail at present already have an active warrant for "failure to appear."

People arrested for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle — the harshest charge brought against most suspected car thieves due to a loophole in state law — will still be eligible for early release, but will be placed at the very back of the list.

"People who steal cars do so frequently," Reese noted. "It is an action that facilitates other crimes."

The plan update was spurred after KATU and Willamette Week reported in April that the jail's computer program recommended releasing an 18-year-old charged with murder for a fatal shooting outside a shuttered Walgreens Pharmacy in Gresham in 2016.

Jamaine Laray Oliver was never released and later pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter.

"A decade ago, we never anticipated that we would have people with this type of scoring eligible for release," Reese said.

Population problem

In the last year and a quarter, jailers have been forced to release 232 inmates who would have otherwise remained incarcerated while awaiting trial or a plea deal.

The county's jails were 90 percent full for 322 days during the timeframe, and reached "Red Alert" status — 95 percent or above — 56 times.

"Ninety percent capacity has become more of a norm than an exception," said MCSO facilities services manager Katie Burgard.

As recently as September 2016, the county had space for 1,310 inmates — but budget woes shrunk that number to the current capacity of 1,192 by July of 2017. There are now 448 beds available at the downtown Multnomah County Detention Center and 744 beds at Inverness Jail.

Compounding the problem, U.S. Marshals lodge on average 100 individuals a month inside the local jails. Most are awaiting trial at the downtown federal courthouse located next door to MCDC. The contract with the Marshals is up for renegotiation, however.

Reese said the lack of beds means that "disruptive" people end up being assigned to a prison dormitory designed for people undergoing substance abuse treatment. Representatives from the corrections deputy union said five prison dormitories are currently closed due to lack of funds.

"This is an issue we're all very concerned with," said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson.

"I understand and sympathize with the stresses these emergencies place on our corrections staff, the public and on people in custody," added county chair Deborah Kafoury.

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