Multnomah County delays nixing jail beds
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Thursday, Aug. 29, temporarily shelved a plan to shut down 73 jail beds in the hope of securing additional funding from the Oregon Legislature in February.
Chair Deborah Kafoury said that approving the immediate closure of a jail dorm, as had been discussed earlier in the week, would be irresponsible and would immediately "put the system into crisis."
The board instead approved a jail bailout using $900,000 of contingency funds to supplement jail funding through March 15. But the change does not affect the remainder of the $7.7 million worth of cuts stemming from state community corrections funding reductions, cuts the board discussed earlier in the week.
Those cuts will fall most heavily upon the counselors, probation and other members of the Department of Community Justice.
Kafoury and other commissioners repeatedly said the cuts also could hurt state coffers, local residents and county employees.
"At the end of the day, we know what these cuts are going to mean. Less supervision, fewer services, more people going to prison who would otherwise have the chance to turn their lives around, and the loss of valuable county employees," Kafoury said.
She said the county will try to reverse some of the state cuts when the Legislature reconvenes for a short session next February.
The county's cuts announced this week stemmed from cuts at the state level to community corrections funding authorized in 1995 through a bill called SB 1145, which shifted oversight of inmates facing sentences of 12 months or less from state prisons or parole to county jails or probation.
The county board had adopted its own budget expecting state community corrections funds to grow by $2.3 million, accounting for increases in the cost of labor and other services.
Instead, the county's share of the funds was reduced by $5.4 million, leading to the local impact of $7.7 million over the state's biennial budget.
Kafoury said the county had expected the cuts to be reversed at the last minute. Instead, officials said, the unusual chaos of this year's legislative session, and the death of community corrections champion Sen. Jackie Winters of Salem, led the cuts to unexpectedly go through.
"During the legislative session, we had so many phone calls and meetings and lobbying with our legislators with the governor's office trying to explain the importance of this funding, not only to Multnomah County government but to all of our residents," Kafoury said Thursday. "And I'm just sad to say that that message did not get through."
As a result of the cuts, the county will reduce the number of short-term transitional beds it had been funding for adult inmates released from custody, and will cut supervision and eligibility for the Justice Reinvestment Program, which tries to keep people out of state prison.
The cuts to county staff sparked anguished pleas from several affected employees. Several said the cuts were being focused in the wrong areas, with counselor Dave Riley suggesting that the community justice department could instead cut managers as well as contracts that he characterized as duplicative, rather than cut transition counselors like him who help people leaving custody or treatment with services including housing and food.
The jail beds, in contrast, will stay open until state funding can be secured. The cuts proposed would have dropped the county's number of jail beds to 1,119, down from a high of more than 2,000.
Upon taking office in 2016, Sheriff Mike Reese noted publicly that due to its lack of jail beds the county already had one of the shortest average jail stays in the U.S. At 11.9 days in 2014, it was half the national average, according to the Vera Institute of Justice.
On Tuesday, Sheriff Mike Reese predicted that the jail would have to release offenders on an emergency basis almost daily, including defendants accused of property crimes, assaults and weapons charges.
The county's vote Thursday approved $3.5 million because it affected only this year's county budget, or about half the two-year cut resulting from the state's reductions.
Said Kafoury on Thursday: "The only light at the end of the tunnel we have here is a short session coming up where we can — I hope, through all of the testimony that we've heard today, through all the work that we've done today — convince folks that this work is valuable, and we are partners with the state in the work that we do."
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