Overcrowded with no place to go

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Genesis Hansen

Lack of space to house offenders leads to early releases and jail without a ‘bite’

In December, Christopher Becker robbed a man at an ATM in Lincoln City. Becker was placed in Benton County jail on Jan. 4. Forcibly released just 11 days later due to overcrowding, Becker then robbed the Central Willamette Credit Union on Jan. 22.  

Some believe that there is a national systemic issue with prisons and jailhouses being underfunded and overflowing. 

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According to Diana Rabago, division captain for Benton County Jail, there are not enough beds, programs or resources to meet the needs of inmates. The Benton County Jail has been exhausted and is inadequate for the legal system and citizens it serves, according to Rabago.

Brett Burkhardt has been an associate professor of sociology at Oregon State University since 2011 and teaches classes related to criminal justice.

“It’s expensive to imprison that many people, and states and taxpayers don’t want to pay for it… When we put people into prison it doesn’t seem to be leading to reduced crime. It’s not helping everyone as much as we’d like,” Burkhardt said.

The current inmate population began blooming in the late 1980s, putting America at the top of the global charts. With about 2.1 million offenders in the prison system, America beats China by about half a million, according to World Prison Brief.

According to Burkhardt, states are responsible for 90 percent of the country’s prison population, so they can tackle this issue in two ways. The first method requires addressing the problem head on and calls for changing the kind of crimes requiring a prison sentencing, reducing the length of time served or providing treatment. The second method requires the state to release inmates from custody and place them on parole or a supervised consequence plan.

“Overcrowding is a function of two things really. It’s a function of the prison population and then the number of prisons,” Burkhardt said. “So where you’re likely to get prison crowding is those states that have high imprisonment rates, but don’t want to spend the money for a new prison.”

An overflowing prison system leaks into other crevices in the legal system, specifically the jails.

Project plans were begun for a regional jail were to be put up somewhere alongside Interstate Highway 5. According to Rabago the project was to take ten years, so a temporary jail was built to hold inmates in the meantime. The project flopped, which leaving only the jail used today.

A voter-approved levy provided funding to house an additional 27 – 40 inmates at a facility called Northern Oregon Regional Correctional (NORCOR) in Wasco County. Although, the outdated jail fails to provide reasonable housing for the inmate population in Benton County, according to Rabago.

“We consistently have plumbing and electrical issues. We have high and low voltage wires running together, we aren’t up to code when it comes to fire suppression, we don’t even have a sprinkler system. There’s nearly nothing about this building that is safe in my opinion,” Rabago said.

The temporary jail was built in November of 1976 to handle the capacity of 27 inmates, which was later reconfigured to house 40 beds. Some think time and use has worn this building down and accountability in our legal system is suffering because of it.

For the past five years Sheriff Scott Jackson has been serving Benton County. He states that it’s a difficult time to be in law enforcement in this country today and struggles with earning the trust in areas in the community.

“We don’t even have the space to run programs like they have at NORCOR. Parenting classes, GED programs, mental health assistance or job searching support. The research shows that having programs like those opens the options for inmates and gives them confidence to what they can do,” Jackson said.

Often, the jail fills quickly, forcing it to actually shut down and turn away inmates, so alternative punishments are utilized.

“A lot of inmates know the situation here and know that they aren’t going to be held accountable, that we are gonna end up kicking them out. So there isn’t a bite to anything in this community when it comes to jail,” Rabago said.

Early release is common at the jail and inmates must be moved to make more space for newer offenders. Rabago stated there has been an increase in crime rates and in released inmates, with 288 just this past year.

“There has been a rise in violent person-to-person crime and we can’t house these inmates like judges see fit. So we are forced to send them away, release them and give them citations instead. It takes the carrot away from the end of the stick, so for a lot of people there are no consequences for breaking the law,” Jackson said.

As seen in Becker’s case, this wave of wrongdoers actually prones our county to criminal behavior. Releasing offenders may endanger victims and it depletes the already scarce resources the jail has.

“The lawyers want to have their clients sent to NORCOR so they have access to their programs, while the offenders want to stay in Benton County because they know they’ll be released soon,” Jackson said.

To determine which inmates to keep, release and transport, a matrix system has been put in place to analyze the individual’s criminal history, current charges, employment standing and parole or probation status. If they score six or less on this matrix they are released and if they score seven or higher, additional arrangements are made to house them, Rabago said.

Rabago said citizens need to be educated on the workings of the jailhouse in order to understand the real care, planning and funding needed to professionally run the facility.

“There’s a lot that folks that don’t understand what a jail is. How it operates and what you’re actually responsible for by law. You really have to look at it like you’re operating a little city,” Rabago said.

Stacy Mellem is the overseer of the Citizen’s Academy, which provides the opportunity to learn about the challenges and accomplishments of the enforcement office. The program can be taken for 1 college credit through LBCC, and features things like marine patrol, parole and probation  and jail operations. Applications can be found now online.

The Criminal Justice System Association held a meeting the Historical Museum in Philomath on May 31 to update the public on CGL’s progress on the analysis of the system. The firm plans and designs new systems for national correctional facilities and will conduct the assessment.

Commissioner Xan Augerot has been cultivating a plan to bring to life the plans for a regional jail. A resident for the past 25 years, Augerot’s goal with Benton County is to maintain the communities vibrance while operating on an inclusive scale.

Although Aurgerot said she tends to lean left, she asks the question “who else has needs?” and decides to take a stand rather than a side.

With about half the entire budget dedicated to the sheriff’s operations, Augerot’s team decides carefully when investing in operations.

The Sacramento based firm, CGL, has been chosen to analyze and critique the operations of the Benton County circuit jail system. Projecting a release in August or September, the consultants will provide three cost-saving opportunities for the jail and legal system through project management.

“The primary purpose of the criminal justice system assessment is to provide a vision for a trusted and accessible system of justice that provides a high degree of safety and confidence,” Benton County said on a flyer from the Assessment meeting on May 31.

In this meeting, the committee put on a presentation providing data, community feedback and comparing the Benton County system to other counties in Oregon like Yamhill, Linn and Lane. This assessment will project a solution that will supposedly support the county for up to 30 years.

CGL and Benton county are looking at 11 areas of the system, including behavioral health and diversion services. They are currently in the second phase of a four-phased plan to develop a full report on the criminal justice system, which will then be presented to the community in a briefing.

The group is focused on transparency and community engagement, and is planning three break down sessions to dive into the different areas that the community is most concerned about, like treatment for offenders, the cost to the taxpayer and where the system could be improved.

Jackson encourages people to attend tours of the jail and enroll in the Citizen’s Academy to learn about the facility and how the county criminal system works.

“We have good funding, but there is just a lack of space. Anyone that wants a tour can call and come by,” Jackson said.