It’s no shock that Lane County Jail officials have issued a reduced number of free passes to inmates since voters in May approved a ballot measure that allowed the county to swiftly reopen 131 prisoner beds lost to budget cuts in 2012.
What is a bit surprising is the fact that the jail’s so-called revolving door is now spinning even slower than some authorities had predicted prior to the property tax levy’s passage. Early releases since July are down by nearly two-thirds from pre-election levels, according to sheriff’s office statistics.
That’s good news in a county where an average of nearly 100 inmates per week had been freed throughout last winter and spring for “capacity-based” reasons linked to a lack of jail staffing.
“We have slowed that revolving door,” sheriff’s Sgt. Steve French said, adding that “a number of different factors” in addition to the jail’s levy-funded growth in recent months may have contributed to the sharp drop in early releases.
Thanks to the levy, the sheriff’s office in July rehired previously laid-off deputies and brought local inmate bed levels back to where they were in late 2011 and the first half of 2012. Since then, the average number of early releases per week has plummeted to 34.
That number is notably low, considering that the jail set loose an average of 79 prisoners per week for capacity-based reasons during a 12-month period before the budget reductions — when it operated approximately the same number of beds as it does now.
French and others noted one possible explanation for the discrepancy. Along with the sheriff’s office, the county District Attorney’s Office also took a major budget hit in the middle of 2012. Those cuts resulted in a 25 to 30 percent reduction in the number of criminal cases filed by prosecutors, Chief Deputy District Attorney Patty Perlow said.
It’s unclear just how great an effect the DA’s office cuts have had on early release rates. However, the fact that prosecutors have filed substantially fewer cases than they did prior to the budget reductions of 2012 means that dozens of inmates during the last 18 months have been freed from jail — not because of overcrowding, but because they had to be let go when formal charges weren’t pursued.
Had the DA’s office continued operating as it had prior to the cuts, many of those same inmates would certainly have been released from custody prior to trial for capacity-based reasons.
Another factor that directly affects early release totals is the number of inmates being arrested and brought to the jail by local police.
French said officers booked an average of nearly 1,100 people into jail each month between last January and June, but that monthly bookings dropped to slightly more than 1,000 during the latter half of the year. The reasons behind that decrease are unclear.
Lane County’s state pretrial services office, meanwhile, has made no recent changes to a system it uses to consider inmates for release while their cases are pending in Circuit Court, court operations manager Katy Grant said.
“We are not releasing more people than usual,” she said.
Inmates who are kept behind bars after a pretrial services review then become eligible for a potential capacity-based release. Whenever the prisoner population exceeds a level that can be adequately staffed, the jail releases inmates — both pretrial and post-conviction — who are tabbed as being the least dangerous people in custody.
French dismissed as “ridiculous” any suggestion that sheriff’s officials unnecessarily granted early release to some inmates last year in order to gain public support for the levy.
Five months after the jail was forced to lay off deputies and close 96 beds in June 2012, a second round of budget cuts forced the closure of 35 more beds. At that time, and continuing until last July, the 504-bed facility was staffed to hold approximately 125 local inmates.
The facility now employs enough deputies to supervise 256 local probationers, parolees and inmates accused of crimes handled in the county’s Circuit Court. That number is expected to increase after 20 additional levy-funded deputies are hired later this year.
In the year prior to the tax measure’s passage, dozens of prisoners accused of committing assaults and other violent felonies were being released for capacity-based reasons. But since July, not a single prisoner who meets the state’s definition of a violent offender has been released.
“That was the No. 1 goal” of authorities after additional jail beds opened last summer, French said.
Eugene police spokeswoman Melinda McLaughlin said her department has not tracked whether the restoration of jail beds in July has correlated with any drop in crime. Police previously said they expected that increased funding for the jail would have a positive effect on the local crime rate.