Jobs, jail beds are at stake

PHOTO KOBBI R. BLAIR / Statesman Journal

William Bruns (from left), Robert Gonzales and Samson Fernandez Jr. play spades in the G-pod at the Marion County jail. If Measure 30 fails, the pod might have to be shut down.

January 25, 2004

If Measure 30 fails Feb. 3, the Marion County Sheriff’s Office could find itself experiencing a bit of deja vu and a loss of jail and supervision money.

It nearly withdrew from the state’s community corrections program last year because of budget cuts.

Marion County-run parole and short-term jail sentences for state offenders are on the line again if the state cuts money for the program.

The state plans to cut $1.6 million of the county’s community corrections budget per biennium, about 10 percent of the $16 million program, if the tax measure fails.

“You’re talking positions, services and jail beds,” Sheriff Raul Ramirez said. “We would have to reduce services based on having to take that cut.”

Measure 30 is the Legislature’s plan to avoid $544.6 million in state budget cuts to programs and services during this biennium. It would increase income and other taxes. Most voters have received their ballots in the mail.

State prisoners released on parole are required to return to the county where they lived before their incarceration. Community corrections is the parole supervision service for county residents released from prison. Parole officers work with felony offenders to try to keep them on track.

Jail beds are available for offenders who break parole and are ordered to serve less than a year in jail.

Last year, when Measure 28 failed to gain voter approval and the state announced plans to cut $945,000 in Marion County funding for the biennium, local leaders decided to withdraw from the program. The county would have given up the $8 million per year that it gets from the state to run the program, but also would have stopped supervising all state parolees. About half the county’s 528 jail beds would have emptied.

The state later restored $400,000. In response, the county cut 64 jail beds, eliminated some staff and cut some of the programs available to offenders, but the program continued.

It now has about 70 state parolees in jail for breaking parole at any one time. It supervises 3,600 other state and local offenders on parole and probation.

Cuts this year could lead to larger caseloads, less supervision and less money to provide offenders with treatment programs, Ramirez said. Offenders and victims both could suffer. The $1.6 million cut would mean a loss of jail beds and employees, unless the county uses its money to fill them. Withdrawing from the problem altogether would mean far deeper cuts and potentially hundreds of state parolees locally without supervision.

“You end up diluting the system of accountability for offenders,” Ramirez said.

Russ Walker, the Oregon director of Citizens for a Sound Economy and opponent of the tax measure, doesn’t think any of the cuts are necessary.

Walker thinks the state could be more efficient to avoid cutting programs. Earmarking cuts for programs that are most important to voters is an attempt to hold taxpayers hostage, he said.

“I think there’s two priorities the government should fund,” Walker said. “One of them is public safety, and the other is education.”

Marion County officials see three options for dealing with state cuts. They could take funds from other parts of the budget to pay for the program. It could opt out. Or it could ask the state to reduce workload to match the cuts. Ramirez hopes to do the latter.

The issue is complicated by the fact that the state paid for and still owns one wing of the county jail.

Undersheriff Mike Wilkerson said if the county does withdraw, it will have to negotiate with the state on what will happen to the 128-bed G-pod, built with $6.9 million in state funds in the 1990s as part of the community corrections program. The state could abandon the investment, hire state workers to run that wing or contract with the county to house prisoners in a different system.

Marion County commissioner Janet Carlson said she thinks the offenders in the program are the state’s responsibility.

“I’m not interested in backfilling money that the state is supposed to provide,” Carlson said.

The commissioners might, however, decide to designate county money to fill those beds with local offenders if the state cuts its dollars. In the current budget year, the county designated about $250,000 to reopen 64 jail beds and filled them with local property offenders. It could do something similar, but that would not address higher parole caseloads or the fate of state offenders who have violated their parole.

Polk County plans to handle the situation differently. It could lose $201,000 of its nearly $2.1 million community corrections budget. It will likely reduce programming and staff if the cuts go forward, said county administrator Greg Hansen, but probably will not withdraw from the program.

“We also believe it’s the state’s responsibility,” Hansen said. “However, we still believe it’s valuable for local law enforcement and our criminal justice system to have local control of that program.”

If some counties give back the program and others don’t, it will create a split and a less efficient system, said former Marion County commissioner Randy Franke.

“Because of the corrections policy, I’d try long and hard to try to sustain the programs without pulling the trigger,” Franke said. “But in the end, if you have to sacrifice too many other programs that are paid for out of the general fund, then I don’t think they have a choice but to pull it back.”

The best way for the state and the counties to be proactive instead of reactive would be to reform the tax system, Franke said.

Steve Doell’s 12-year-old daughter, Lisa, was run over intentionally and killed by an emotionally disturbed teenager in October 1992.

Doell, now president of Crime Victims United, said his group is not taking a position on Measure 30. But, he said, if there are cuts in the state budget, criminal justice should be preserved. The cuts should come from another part of the budget. Protecting people is the most important duty of government, he said.

“We don’t feel very good about it because it’s going to put people at risk and it’s going to create more victims,” Doell said about criminal justice cuts.

Cindy Becker, assistant director of the Department of Administrative Services, said she doesn’t know what will happen to state offenders if the counties withdraw. The state will assess each situation individually during a required 180-day transition period. They don’t have any alternate plans for stopping cuts if the measure fails.

“I think it’s fair to say,” Becker said, “we don’t have a hip-pocket plan we’re prepared to pull out.”

Cara Roberts Murez can be reached at (503) 399-6750.