Oregon Cities

Multnomah County warns it may not have enough jail beds if Oregon doesn’t increase funding

Justice center
The Multnomah County Jail and justice center is located in downtown Portland, Oregon.

FILE – The Multnomah County Jail and Justice Center in downtown Portland, Ore., in 2019.

Kaylee Domzalski / OPB

Multnomah County officials are threatening to close nearly one-fifth of Portland’s jail beds next year after state lawmakers denied their request for more money this year.

County officials say they have short-term funding to paper over what they say are structural funding problems approved by lawmakers. County commissioners will vote next week on using that money.

But without a broader fix, Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell is warning her jails might revert back to pre-pandemic days of persistent overcrowding, when they were routinely forced to release incarcerated people.

The threat of eliminating jail beds is part of a game of budgetary chicken around state criminal justice funding that has become routine in recent years, but has now grown more complicated because of Oregon’s pioneering experiment in decriminalizing hard drugs.

For nearly three decades, Oregon has paid counties to jail and supervise felons in their own communities rather than paying a premium to keep them in state-run prisons. But county officials increasingly say the funding doesn’t cut it — and that the Legislature is willfully ignoring state data that show they should be paid far more.

Lawmakers in turn question whether the hundreds of millions they’re giving to counties is having the intended impact. They’re promising to look more closely at how they apportion money for so-called “community corrections,” a term that encompasses a wide range of programs designed to support offenders and keep them from committing new crimes.

“A significant issue for me has always been the ask of new money when there is not an open conversation about outcomes,” said House Speaker Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis. “The outcomes are not where they need to be at all in terms of recidivism.”

Measure 110, the state’s drug decriminalization effort, has poured fuel on the smoldering tensions.

With fewer people being convicted of drug crimes, counties are expected to jail and supervise fewer people in coming years. Under Oregon’s funding formula, that means less money. The Department of Corrections budget for community corrections statewide shrank to $252.4 million in the current two-year budget, a decrease of more than $30 million from the previous two years.

Related: Multnomah County sheriff asks outside agencies to review spike in jail deaths

But counties say the state formula masks some nuances. While they may be working with fewer people, the cases they’re left with tend to be complex, requiring more time and attention. Before Measure 110, the cost of those cases averaged out because counties would also be paid to work with people who required far less supervision.

“This group of individuals that normally would be a part of this system are gone,” said Stacy Cowan, a lobbyist for Multnomah County. “Who is left are individuals with higher acuity.”

Multnomah County Chair Jessica Vega Pederson, Morrisey O’Donnell and Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler lobbied lawmakers this year on the need to keep community corrections funding at the same amount as the prior budget. That allotment would still leave Multnomah County with millions less in state funding than it received last year because of changes to how state funding is apportioned among counties.

Morrisey O’Donnell said she reiterated the challenges of today’s jail population in her lobbying pitch. “I talked about the grave impacts to reduction of jail capacity,” she said, “and ensured that they had an opportunity to ask any questions of us.”

But the push for more money failed, and now Multnomah County says the shortfall will require drastic steps if not addressed in Salem next year.

County commissioners will be briefed on the funding gap Tuesday, and Vega Pederson will ask her colleagues next week to spend almost $6 million to avoid serious cuts. But if a longer-term fix isn’t found, the county says it will have to close 219 jail beds and lay off roughly 40 employees.

“These outcomes will result in individuals receiving less supervision and possibly the emergency release of individuals in Multnomah County Jail,” Portland-area officials wrote to lawmakers during the legislative session.

While the money commissioners are expected to approve will delay bed closures, Morrisey O’Donnell says it won’t solve the underlying problem. If more funding isn’t secured for next year’s budget, she says she’s prepared to reduce jail capacity by June. That could cause jail crowding at a level Portland hasn’t seen since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Last month, Multnomah County had 1,130 beds budgeted between its two jails, and held between 833 and 934 people in custody on any given night. Absent other changes, a reduction to 911 beds would routinely put the jail in a position of being forced to release people to ease overcrowding for the first time since early 2020.

“Reducing the funded jail bed capacity by 219 … would place the Multnomah County corrections system in an immediate population emergency,” said Chris Liedle, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office.

Related: Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell on the spike in overdoses and deaths in jail 🔊

But in Oregon’s two-year budget cycle, there is often wiggle room. When counties complained of being shorted on corrections money in 2019, they eventually convinced lawmakers to distribute another $30 million. Community corrections officials plan to make a similar request during next year’s short session.

“While Washington County’s shortfall has not led to the same level of proposed cuts [as Multnomah County], we are still uncertain in how we will be able to meet standards under the state’s adopted budget,” said Nate Gaoiran, director of community corrections for Oregon’s second most-populous county. “We will be working on getting increased funding from the Legislature in 2024 … and we expect a number of other counties to be joining us.”

When they do make their case next year, counties can likely expect at least one sympathetic ear.

“I support putting more money toward the program when we have the ability to do so,” said state Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, co-chair of the budget subcommittee that funds the state corrections system. “It’s a question of: I wanted an F-350, I can afford a moped.”

Due to Oregon’s unique “kicker” law, state officials are set to refund $5.5 billion in personal income taxes next year — money that in most other states could have been banked or spent on much needed services.

Even with that massive outflow from state coffers, Evans said he’ll push for more funding to help counties once they have a clearer idea of how much they need, assuming the state has money to give.

The discussion is unlikely to end there. Evans and Rayfield are among lawmakers who have begun to question whether Oregon is getting clear enough benefits from county programs that are designed to help prevent people from reoffending once they’re out of jail.

Oregon’s recidivism rate has plummeted in recent years, according to state data, though policing changes brought on by COVID-19, combined with Measure 110, are likely key factors. It’s not clear whether or how community corrections programs played a part.

Multnomah and Lane counties have recently begun to see their recidivism rates climb again.

“I happen to believe that we’re at one of those moments of inflection,” Evans said. “The question is: Is the theory actually living up to the hype or do we have to make some adjustments?”


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