June 19th, 2009 5:33 pm | by JAMES PITKIN News | Posted In: CLEAN UP, CLEAN UP, Multnomah County

Get Out of Jail: 'Emergency Releases' are Back (Updated with Ted Wheeler Comment)


After a 15-month lull, the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office reported this week they were once again forced to release prisoners because local jails were full.

The sheriff's office let 30 prisoners walk free in the past week: 10 on June 14, and 20 on June 16.

Twelve of those prisoners were arrested for property crimes like identity theft and car theft. Another 12 were arrested for drug crimes including possession, manufacturing and dealing drugs (including one for dealing near a school). The last six were arrested for crimes of attempting to elude police, interfering with public transport and failing to appear in court.

So-called "emergency releases" like these were once commonplace in Multnomah County — former Sheriff Bernie Giusto used to invite local TV news crews to film them parading out of jail, in an effort to secure more money for jails from the county commissioners.

But such releases haven't happened since March 2008 — a change some observers peg to the drop in crime. The timing of this latest round of releases raised some eyebrows. It comes shortly after the board of county commissioners passed a budget June 4 that closed an additional 46 jail beds.

Coming just over one week after that vote, the releases caused some county staffers to suspect the sheriff's office was gaming the system in a bid for additional funding. But Christine Kirk, chief of staff to Sheriff Bob Skipper, says the sheriff's office made no changes to its booking policy or any other practices that would have led to those releases.

She says the sheriff's office isn't sure why the jail filled up those two days to the point that emergency releases were required. But she denies any ulterior motive and says the sheriff's office has almost no control over the size of the jail population, which is heavily contingent on state law and court-ordered policies about who gets released when.

"It could have just been good weather. It could have been the number of officers on the street. It's hard to say," Kirk says. "We're the last person that has any say in who goes in. We have no ability to tick up the population because we don't control (who gets released on recognizance)."

But Kirk says there's one thing the sheriff's office can predict with a fair amount of certainty: continuing to close jail beds will result in more emergency releases.

According to sheriff's office figures, the latest cuts scheduled to take effect July 1 will bring to 266 the number of jail beds lost since June 2008. That leaves 1,367 jail beds open starting next month, according to the sheriff's office — down 16 percent from 1,633 in June 2008.

UPDATE: County Chair Ted Wheeler says he's concerned about the emergency releases, but that it's overly simplistic to blame the problem on the loss of jail beds.

Wheeler says officials first need to understand what's behind the increased demand for jail beds in recent weeks. He's put his deputy chief operating officer for public safety, Peter Ozanne, in charge of finding the cause. Then, with public input, Wheeler says Ozanne and other officials will devise a plan to limit emergency releases and ensure there's accountability when they occur.
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