The Computer System That Decides Who Stays in Jail Is Recommending the Release of People Accused of Violent Crimes

Why are Portland's serious offenders being released from jail instead of low-level violators?

(Cody Blocker)

On a Sunday morning last month, a computer told Multnomah County deputies to let a man charged with murder go free.

The March 18 recommendation by the computer program is the most alarming example of what deputies, defense lawyers and judges all describe as a flawed system for deciding who stays in the county's overcrowded jails.

The suggestion left Sheriff Mike Reese scrambling to find a way to keep 18-year-old accused murderer Jamaine Oliver in jail. It also has county officials in a hurry to find a fix to stop the computer from making similar suggestions in the future.

"The justice system moves slowly," says Cheryl Albrecht, chief criminal judge for Multnomah County Circuit Court, "and then something like these last few weeks happens, and slow and deliberate isn't an option anymore."

When Multnomah County jails get too full, a computer program applies a set of criteria called a "matrix" created in the county's Jail Capacity Management Plan to determine who the sheriff's office will release to make room.

The matrix is supposed to weigh risk factors such as the number and types of charges and holds placed by other jurisdictions to determine who goes free. But nearly everybody agrees the formula is dangerous, because it keeps nonviolent offenders behind bars while letting violent ones go.

Multnomah County jails have been filled to near capacity since November, four months after county officials reduced the number of jail beds from 1,251 to 1,192 in an effort at criminal justice reform and to save money.

Before the jail dorms closed, the sheriff's office rarely released inmates from jail because of overcrowding. But since last July, deputies have released 163 inmates early, as WW reported last month.

The mechanism that determines who gets released has remained largely unquestioned until now, even though such decisions are made without judicial oversight or input from prosecutors or defense lawyers.

Many of the inmates picked for release have been charged with serious, sometimes violent crimes. About 46 percent of inmates released because of overcrowding get arrested again. Some cycle through the jail, getting released because of overcrowding, arrested again, and then released by the matrix again.

Emergency jail releases have been around for decades. But the new pressures created by a reduction in jail beds are revealing flaws in how the computer system scores prisoners.

Multnomah County Courthouse (Daniel Stindt)

Why are serious offenders being released from jail instead of low-level violators? Observers of the system point to a number of flaws.

In some instances, low-level offenders are overlooked as they wait to be released into supervision programs or treatment beds. The computer also skips some inmates waiting for release hearings in court, even if their charges are minor.

In other cases, a person with several minor charges or a person with a minor charge who also has past convictions may score higher in the computer than someone facing one violent charge—because the matrix adds points to inmates' scores based on their criminal history.

The result: 45 percent of those inmates who have been released early this fiscal year have been charged with a crime that, if convicted, would carry a prison sentence.

"There's no way to override the lists," says Matt Ingram, a board member of the Multnomah County Corrections Deputy Association. "We're letting out people charged with sex abuse and attempted murder—really atrocious crimes. It's not a guy who broke into a car today."

Officials concede they hadn't spotted those flaws until this year.

"We need to look at the matrix itself," says District Attorney Rod Underhill. "The numbers had worked for a long time, but we need to think about revisiting the matrix now."

The sheriff's office says it is forbidden—by the County Board of Commissioners resolution that created the matrix, and by state law—to deviate from the list the computer spits out.

In fact, when the name of an accused killer wound up at the top of the list for release, the sheriff didn't overrule the computer.

Instead, Reese asked Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury to temporarily open a closed dorm in Inverness Jail. Kafoury agreed the jail could use its vacant beds for two days while officials found other ways to reduce the jail population.

Multnomah County Courthouse (Daniel Stindt)

One day after his 18th birthday, in October 2016, Oliver shot and killed a 19-year-old he says threatened him with a knife. The young man pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the first degree on March 22, just four days after Multnomah County deputies almost released him from jail. His sentencing hearing is set for April 26.

Oliver's name had appeared on the list with several dozen inmates charged with criminal mischief, motor vehicle theft, drug possession, burglary and failing to register as a sex offender. Yet Oliver was scheduled for release ahead of inmates with lesser charges.

Judges for Multnomah County Circuit Court, the District Attorney's Office, the sheriff's office and the county commission all see a problem—but don't agree on how to solve it.

"We want to keep the community safe," Ingram says. "We can't do that with things as they are."

The union has been pushing Reese to reopen another dorm and openly criticized the sheriff for allowing dozens of matrix releases each month.

"He is allowing the early release of violent inmates back into our neighborhoods, the very neighborhoods we have all been sworn to protect," the union said in a March 22 statement.

The sheriff's office says it will probably ask the county for money to open another dorm in Inverness Jail. But the County Board of Commissioners is hesitant. And public defenders say the move to open another dorm in the jail overlooks other ways to reduce the jail population.

"The real fix is, you don't keep people in on stupid charges," says public defender Chris O'Connor. "They keep people in on petty charges. They have shoplifters stuck in custody, people on probation violations on very minor cases."

Portland's recent spike in crime has mostly come from skyrocketing property crimes like motor vehicle theft. Most of those offenders are eligible for some kind of diversion or release program in the county.

Related: In Portland, you can steal cars over and over again—and get away with it. Here's how.

County Chairwoman Kafoury says emergency releases should be a last resort—and so should jail beds.

"We've not had this situation before since I've been around," she says. "We are going to work on [the matrix], but we need to continue to work on getting people into programs that will treat the underlying issue. It's not something solved overnight."

Kafoury says the county is working to find a solution that strikes the right balance between spending, reform and public safety.

"Obviously there are some changes that we need to make to the matrixing tool," she adds. "If a homicide suspect comes up on the list, then the list needs to be changed."

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