Project 57 seemed straightforward enough when Mayor Tom Potter announced it as part of his downtown safety strategy: spend $1 million-plus on 57 more jail beds to keep druggies and thieves off the street until they go to court.
But Project 57 isn't living up to the rosy plan the mayor announced last fall. And it's doubtful whether it can, because the current judicial system isn't that simple.
Three months since Project 57 began on Nov. 1, the bottom-line result of that complexity: More than half the people (coincidentally, 57 percent) using those 57 beds are released before ever seeing a judge, contrary to the project's primary objective.
Those figures come from P 57's coordinator, Charlie Makinney. "It doesn't make sense," says Makinney, formerly the police liaison to the mayor under both Vera Katz and Potter. "They're recogged faster than we can book 'em."
"Recog" is cop talk for releasing someone from custody on his own recognizance.
Austin Raglione, deputy chief of staff for the mayor, adds, "They're being recogged at a rate we never anticipated. I would call it a significant obstacle."
In fact, the people the beds are intended for—those who commit "livability" crimes, such as trespassing, drug crimes or prostitution—are often among the first let out. That's because court standards for deciding whether to recog somebody focus mainly on whether that person poses an immediate threat of violence on the street. Thus, those charged with "livability" crimes such as drug-dealing, prostitution or trespassing have a higher likelihood of being released before their court appearance.
"It's a court issue, not a jail issue," says Portland Police Lt. Lawrence O'Dea, a member of P 57's management committee.
When the city approved $1.3 million this year to pay Multnomah County for the 57 jail beds, Potter said the project would "create a significant deterrence to the chronic recurrence of crime."
But if the mayor wants these low-level criminals in jail until arraignment, then the criteria used to release them would have to change. And changes must be approved by the county's presiding judge, Dale Koch.
City and county officials will meet with Koch to discuss just such a proposal on Feb. 14—the first time in four years the release standards will get another look.
The meeting aims "to see if there are tweaks we should be making to deal with people who are churning the system or who are not a risk to the public," Koch says.
But how much will, or can, the standards really change?
Koch says you can't "single out people based on where they get arrested"—they have to be applied evenly to people nabbed downtown, at Lloyd Center or in Gresham.
Right now, most offenders who end up in a Project 57 bed have been busted in Old Town on drug charges. After tracking 44 offenders through Project 57 who were released prior to arraignment, Koch found that they averaged three prior arrests in the past 60 days.
Those are exactly the kind of people Potter wants to stay in jail, but they're also the people most likely to be released under the current standards.
That's not to say the jail beds are empty. All 1,690 Multnomah County jail beds are full each night. And Christine Kirk, chief of staff at the county sheriff's office, says that's what matters. Fewer criminals on the street means the public is safer, she says, regardless of the crimes they're booked for.
But that's not the image Potter sold the beds on.
"One of the side benefits of this thing is seeing how the system works together and how it doesn't," says O'Dea.
Project 57 may prove that it doesn't.