In the Willamette Valley, Lane County's criminal justice system is changing. Years of underfunding and jail crowding at the county level have left cities housing and incarcerating more inmates. From Oregon Public Broadcasting, April Baer reports.
This winter, the city of Springfield took matters into its own hands, opening a new hundred-bed facility where it's holding people suspected of low-level crimes. Richard Golden is the city's Jail Operations Supervisor.
Richard Golden “OK we're in a hallway that is secure, it's the path from the jail to the second floor municipal courtrooms.”
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AB: It's open three months now, this part of the building?”
Richard Golden “We opened January 29th ….”
This is the biggest standalone city jail in the state – the next biggest in Reedsport, has just eleven beds. Golden acknowledges it's unusual for a city to take on this kind of responsibility – and its twenty-two million-dollar construction cost. But Golden says, the county jail just wasn't getting the job done.
Richard Golden “It's not the jail's fault, they've been great with us, they've helped us immensely.”
But he says Springfield police found themselves arresting some suspects 8 to ten times for the same low-level offenses.
Richard Golden “The officers become demoralized. Instead of dealing with the person and the issue, they sometimes tend to ignore it – it's human nature. This has changed all of that.”
Springfield's jail runs a bit leaner than a traditional county lock-up. There are no rehab or vocational programs. Jail staffers are trained corrections officers, but they are not fully-sworn policemen and -women. That means personnel costs are a bit lower than at the county level.
Golden says for the first time in years, arrestees are actually showing up for their arraignments – saving the city the cost of chasing arrestees down multiple times. The jail's even brought in a little money: eighty-eight thousand dollars ($88,000) in bail in less than three months.
Richard Golden “People would come in here and say ‘When do I get to leave?,' because they thought they were still in the Lane County jail. And we said, ‘You don't. You have to post bail.' “
Other cities are trying out local jails, too.
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The city of Florence has made modest improvements to get its jail rated as a local corrections facility. People now spend short sentences there for offenses like DUII and domestic violence. Florence City Prosecutor Floyd Prozanski says told attendees of a public meeting last month that it's hard to overestimate the importance of bringing local accountability into the system.
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But he adds there are some things the city can't yet handle as well as the county.
Floyd Prozanski “The example I'll give you, we had a case where an individual was convicted for DUII.”
Prozanski tried the man and won a DUII conviction in municipal court. But the defendant turned around and asked for a re-hearing in a county court.
Floyd Prozanski “And we started from ground zero. In other words, the conviction that happened here, it's like it didn't happen.”
The defendant was allowed this re-hearing because the city court does not have a court reporter or digital recording system. The state doesn't recognize it as a so-called court of record. Prozanski had to spend another two days retrying the case, on the city's dime. He won again, but still felt steamed.
Critics question the wisdom of building up city justice systems. Ron Chase runs Sponsors, Inc, a non-profit that works with ex-offenders. He's involved with a study group that's looking at local jail funding in Lane County.
Ron Chase “It would have made a lot more sense to me if the cities had contracted more of the county beds – ‘cause the county has whole wings of a jail that aren't even used.”
At this point, there's little statistical evidence on whether the new jail models reduce crime. But on the ground, the new jail has its fans –like James Strickland, a Springfield Municipal Judge.
James Strickland “I now don't make threats. Now when I decide someone needs to be incarcerated, they will be incarcerated.”
The county is still considering a new tax levy for public safety – that could be a tough sell in a down economy. A poll to test the idea will be completed by end of May.
I'm April Baer, in Springfield.
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Copyright 2010 Oregon Public BroadcastingCities spurred to take on more inmates