Will the streets of Multnomah County soon be crawling with crooks? That's the question Sheriff Dan Noelle wants you to ponder as he grapples with $6 million in budget cuts for fiscal 2002-2003.

To do this, Noelle says, he'll have to eliminate 431 beds from the county jail system. Under this scenario--and it's still only hypothetical--Noelle would let some nasty folks remain free, including some robbers and sex offenders who fail to register.

The prospect of a 35 percent cut in jail capacity since last summer (he eliminated 300 beds in the last fiscal year) makes the sheriff feel, as he puts it, "like shit." He took office in 1995, pledging to control the space crisis, and has largely succeeded.

The two-term sheriff has also proven skillful at creating a ruckus come budget time each year. But neither County Chair Diane Linn nor County Commissioner Serena Cruz thinks he's bluffing. In fact, jail space is already so tight that Noelle released 40 inmates this past weekend.

Linn's chief of staff, John Rakowitz, says the county's need to cut $16 million from its $290 million general-fund budget means each department, including the sheriff's, will share the pain. But until the budget is finalized in June, expect Noelle to be making a lot of noise.