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Lane County Levy Seeks Funds To Hold Prisoners

 In Lane County, jail officials can’t hold many offenders for more than a few hours. Lane is one of several southern Oregon counties grappling with the loss of federal timber payments.

Wednesday we heard how those cuts are affecting public safety in Josephine County. Now, April Baer looks at the levy proposal in Lane County to raise money for jail beds.

Lane County Deputy Scott Denham is on his first call of a warm, sunny spring day.

Scott Denham, Sheriff's Deputy, Lane County.

Scott Denham, Sheriff’s Deputy, Lane County.

April Baer/OPB

“Everybody comes out when the sun does,” he says as we cruise through town, headed to a self-storage facility in unincorporated Lane County.

It’s the Sheriff’s Department’s turf.

“We are en route to a disorderly suspicious person on Prairie Road at a business that’s acting threatening and hostile. He’s currently wanted for a probation violation.”

Denham joins another deputy to enter the storage locker where they believe the suspect is waiting. Within seconds, they’ve got him outside and handcuffed, and it’s off to the county jail for booking.

Deputy Denham and a colleague make an arrest.

Deputy Denham and a colleague make an arrest.

April Baer/OPB

But in Lane County, most arrestees don’t stay long.

“He’ll be processed here, it was a no-bail warrant so he may end up staying here until he’s seen in arraignments tomorrow,” Denham says.

That’s assuming the jail isn’t releasing people to get capacity down today.

“He may get capacity released within the next one to twenty-four hours.”

And indeed, the suspect was released about eight hours after Deputy Denham took him in.

It’s been 23 years since Lane County voters passed a levy supporting public safety and the main jail.

Captain Greg Fox, Jail Commander, Lane County Sheriff's Dept.

Captain Greg Fox, Jail Commander, Lane County Sheriff’s Dept.

April Baer/OPB

Greg Fox is Lane County’s Corrections Division Captain.

“It is difficult when we spend the hours working to booking people in, only to be booking the same people out, a lot of times not he same shift — especially when we see the same person come in sometimes the very next day, sometimes hours  after committing additional crimes.”

Fox says the jail has room for 507 inmates, but the funding squeeze has forced the jail down to 135 open beds.

The ripple effects are felt throughout the criminal justice system, says Karsten Rasmussen. He’s the presiding Judge of the Lane County Circuit Court.

Lane County Circuit Court's Presiding Judge Karsten Rasmussen.

Lane County Circuit Court’s Presiding Judge Karsten Rasmussen.

April Baer/OPB

“There are people out there who have to be held because they’re flight risks. There are people out there who have to be held because they’re simply Failure to Appear Risks. They may not go farther than Cottage Grove or Drain, but they’re not going to show up for court, and they have to be held, to ensure they do show up for court. There are people who are held because they are dangerous.”

But Rasmussen says what’s more problematic is that jail is too crowded to carry out the sentences he and his fellow judges impose on the guilty.

“I know of a case in which a woman was sentenced in December of 2012 to I believe a year in local custody for a combination of DUII and assault and other misdemeanors, and was let out after a day.”

After nine failed public safety levies, Lane County is going to voters one more time. But County Chair Sid Leiken says the approach is different.

Lane County Chair Sid Leiken

Lane County Chair Sid Leiken

April Baer/OPB

“One thing has been tried in the past, the county has put out different levies. They’ve tried to fix the problem all at once. You can’t do that.”

Leiken was Mayor of Springfield before coming to the county. He wants Lane County to try Springfield’s approach: a narrowly tailored request for money.

The levy would raise $0.55 per $1,000 of assessed value. Leiken says that would be spent on staffing the jail — not on patrols, not on diversion programs. While Lane County has a relatively low tax rate Leiken notes, he feels the safety issue makes it harder for Lane County to compete.

The O&C Counties aren’t the only ones making hard decisions about who to let out of jail. But Lane County officials say 15-20 percent of people they’ve released over the past nine months have committed new crimes.

One burglar was released eleven times over five months before he was finally sentenced to state prison.

A bank robber wanted in three cases was released for capacity reasons. He robbed another bank an hour after walking out the jail doors.

Some crime victims say they feel abandoned by the system.

Tom Krissie’s 19-year-old son Bryson was killed by a hit-and-run driver last June. The man accused of his son’s death was released from the crowded jail, and went free for several weeks pretrial, although he was ordered not to drive.

Eventually the driver was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

“I think there’s a lot of disconnect between reality and a lot of the people. You want safety and you don’t want to pay for it, you’re part of the problem. It’s just unreal — a get-out-of-jail-free card in Lane County,” says Krissie, who  now lives in Montana.

But the jail levy supporters face an uphill climb with voters who feel like the county hasn’t made its case.

James Kaplan says he's not sold on the levy.

James Kaplan says he’s not sold on the levy.

April Baer/OPB

Springfield resident James Kaplan has lived in Lane County for 17 years. He has some experience with the justice system, having faced drug charges several times before he got clean in 2007. 

Kaplan says he was taken aback when he got his voter’s guide, and saw no arguments in opposition to the levy. 

“I understand we need some jail capacity and there need to be some programs for offenders, but to have no voice dissenting, or even questioning the levy is kind of strange.”

Kaplan says he’s perfectly aware of the need for a functional jail, but at this point he plans to vote against the levy. He feels very strongly about the importance of improving access to mental health care. What turned his life around, he says, was an educational program through the county and Lane Community College.

But can education programs can’t be effective without a fully-operational jail?

“Right now we’ve got a little over a hundred jail beds locally. To me, that’s not a functional public safety system,” says Paul Solomon, director of Sponsors, Inc. a re-entry program based in Eugene.

Paul Solomon, Executive Director Sponsors Inc.

Paul Solomon, Executive Director Sponsors Inc.

April Baer/OPB

He believes the U.S. and Oregon put far too many people behind bars.. But he says Lane County’s jail problem has reached a point where there’s no incentive for offenders to show up for court dates, much less seriously consider treatment as an alternative to prison.

“In years past, I would have been willing to debate how many jail beds we actually need. Now we’re really at a place where I think the house is on fire. We need to do something.”

If levies in Lane, Josephine, and Curry Counties fail, the state may intervene.

The Governor has been working with legislators on a bill to allow declaration of public safety emergencies when a county can no longer provide for adequate public safety.

Local and state leaders would need to agree on the declaration. It would allow the Governor to assess a county income tax surcharge to fund public safety for an 18-month emergency period.

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