Oregon sheriffs and lawmakers said Friday they support legislation that would require jails to provide more information about its in-custody populations.
House Bill 3289 would direct the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission to collect jail data and study a range of issues, policies and procedures at jail facilities, as well as the costs and barriers of achieving adequate health care for people who are incarcerated.
The bill follows an investigation by OPB, KUOW and the Northwest News Network that found that since 2008, at least 306 people died after being taken to a jail in the Pacific Northwest. That number wasn't known before the investigation because Oregon and Washington don't track county jail deaths in a way that's comprehensive.
The reporting showed that suicide is the leading cause of death inside Northwest jails, and that jails often lack standards, training and staffing to deal with people who have significant mental health and other medical conditions.
Marion County Sheriff Jason Myers, who also sits on the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association executive committee, said they support the bill.
“We think the data is very important to inform both the jails and the criminal justice system,” Myers testified. “Any help we can get, we would take and appreciate. We want to make people better, not worse when they come into our custody.”
Myers said one obstacle the sheriffs face is they don’t have a unified jail management system across the state.
Myers added that the people booked into jails have significant challenges.
“They come directly from the street,” he said. “Most of these individuals are suffering from mental illness or addiction and they come directly to us. Often times, preventative care does not happen for this population, and so they’re very ill.”
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, sponsored the bill. She testified that information about local jails’ in-custody populations is something that’s been missing from the conversation.
“For several years the Criminal Justice Commission has asked for this data but has not been successful in getting it,” she said. “I’m not surprised by these findings or that it was really difficult to get this information.”
Williamson said her legislation was in “no way an indictment” of sheriffs or the OSSA.
“I think what we will see out of this is that we have a data system that is antiquated,” she said.
No one testified against Williamson’s data tracking amendment to the bill, which was introduced Thursday.
The legislation also has the support of the ACLU of Oregon.
“At the ACLU, we frequently receive complaints from incarcerated persons and their loved ones about jail conditions,” Kimberly McCullough, policy director for the ACLU of Oregon, said in written testimony. “Across the country, and here in Oregon, we continuously hear about conditions that threaten their health, safety, and human dignity. The devastating effects of such treatment, particularly on people with mental illness, are well known.”
The Criminal Justice Commission said the legislation will not have a fiscal impact. The bill has a work session scheduled for Monday.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he supports the House bill.
“To me, we now have something that’s been brought to our attention that’s worthy of looking into and finding out what is the issue, what are the causes of those types of issues, and how can we ensure that individuals that are in custody are being appropriately being taken care of,” he told OPB.
Prozanski said he plans to hold a joint judiciary committee hearing sometime in May on the issues that lead to deaths in local jails.
“The report itself is alarming,” he said. “It really does seem that both Washington and Oregon have some issues that really need to be addressed.”