The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners was updated Tuesday, September 19 on efforts to reduce reliance on jail.
The update was the latest in a series of briefings over the past two years to highlight work in partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation's Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC) to avoid costly and unnecessary incarceration - which takes a particularly heavy toll on people struggling with addiction, mental illness and people of color.
In 2015, the County was one of 20 jurisdictions nationwide awarded a $150,000 planning grant by the foundation. The funding resulted in a report that found racial and ethnic disparities throughout the criminal justice system in Multnomah County.
“We launched into what can we do to reduce our reliance on jail in a safe and effective way,” said Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Executive Director Abbey Stamp, who presented before the board.
“Then we had six months of planning and the following year we submitted an application to MacArthur that contained three strategies with a keen focus on community engagement and reducing disparities.”
While the County didn’t win the large grant it sought in 2016, Stamp expressed optimism about a third-round application submitted this summer.
“All of the sites who did not receive large awards have applied for $1 million grants - that would be $1 million a year for two years. We will be able to make that decision public on Oct. 4.”
Strategies to reduce jail
Board members heard about 12 strategies already underway or set to be implemented, all designed to reduce reliance on jail. They include shrinking the time it takes to process probation violations through the court system to decreasing jail stays for misdemeanor defendants undergoing mental health evaluations to shifting certain lower-level offenders assigned to probation under a judge’s supervision (bench probation) to a parole and probation officer’s supervision.
“Probation officers have a tool belt full of options and sanctions and interventions from meetings with offenders to community service. All ways to engage with an offender. Judges are not equipped with those kinds of tools. The only hammer they have is jail,” said Stamp. “So what we are doing is figuring out a better triage system to start to move those new probationers to the Department of Community Justice, where there can be swift and certain sanctions and more appropriate responses in hopes of changing behavior.”
Stamp stressed that 11 of the strategies would be implemented regardless of the county’s involvement with the MacArthur challenge. However a 12th strategy, a program designed for women involved in the justice system with mental health challenges, would rely on SJC funding. The program, modeled after an existing men’s stabilization/treatment housing program, would provide residential and day treatment support for women.
Stamp referenced data showing alarming numbers of women cycling through the County jail.
“Particularly women living in the downtown core and women of color both churn through the jail more frequently on probation violations and when they were there (in jail), they stayed longer than their white counterparts,” Stamp said. “Those were women who were pretty unstable and had significant mental health problems.”
While all women can access the program, which will provide culturally specific services for women of color, Stamp added, “We thought it was high time we did something culturally specific for a population in need that we are not adequately serving.”
In all, the strategies include:
- Reduce the time it takes to adjudicate probation violations/increasing hearings at the Multnomah County Justice Center (Strategy 1)
- Prepare those booked into jail upon admission for transition/treatment/services in the community when released (Strategy 2)
- Reduce the use of jail for those charged with misdemeanor counts of Interfering with Public Transportation (Strategy 3)
- Decrease the average parole and probation jail sanction from 10 days to seven (Strategy 4)
- Expand use of citations in lieu of jail for certain misdemeanor charges and speed up arraignment schedules; expand law enforcement drop-off for individuals with behavioral health challenges arrested for misdemeanors (Strategy 5)
- Assign new misdemeanor bench probationers from a judge’s supervision to parole and probation supervision (Strategy 6)
- Continue the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD) to redirect low-level drug offenders from jail to services (Strategy 7)
- Change automatic jail holds generated for certain offenders in the pretrial process. The reversal would include a safety mechanism and allow for victim input for domestic violence defendants. (Strategy 8)
- Decrease jail use for those arrested for drug charges, matching participants to appropriate supervision/services (Strategy 9)
- Establish best practices and training for judges on the appropriate length and frequency of sanctions (Strategy 10)
- Decrease jail stays for misdemeanor defendants undergoing mental health competency evaluations; conduct rapid assessments in custody, rather than at the state hospital (Strategy 11)
- If funded through MacArthur Foundation, create a mental health alternative shelter program for women, particularly women of color involved in the justice system. (Strategy 12)
If fully implemented, the strategies could result in a 14.5 percent reduction of average daily population or a jail population just under 1,000.
“We’re going to continue to meet and continue to have our collaborative work, continue to narrow in on those who should be in jail and continue to push for creative solutions for those who can be safely supervised in the community,” Stamp explained.
Commissioners applaud progress, ask questions
The Multnomah County Commissioners commended the progress and asked questions about the strategies.
“When I go to other places for a conference and they’re talking about public safety and criminal justice reform, when they hear I’m from Multnomah County, they always speak so complimentary about the work that we’re doing,” said Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson. “And also for my predecessor, Commissioner Shiprack, who was a real leader on this issue as well.”
Commissioner Vega Pederson inquired about jail capacity.
Stamp cited seasonal crime trends with summer rises and fall decreases.
“We have found that sweet spot; we have found the right size for our population unless something else changes,” responded Stamp. “So when it comes next summer, and we know that crime is going to spike and activity in the community is going to spike, we’ll be able to more effectively, and without forced releases, monitor that fluctuation. “
Commissioner Lori Stegmann, who co-chairs the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Jail Use Workgroup, shared her conversations with Multnomah County Inverness Jail inmates who expressed concerns about services for those reentering society after incarceration.
“What strategies will address gaps for folks circulating throughout our justice system?” asked Stegmann.
“I would be so bold as to say most of the strategies do,” Stamp replied.
Chair Deborah Kafoury, who serves as the co-chair of the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council, noted the unique collaboration among the County’s public safety partners and stressed the focus on reducing racial and ethnic disparities.
“It’s my understanding that each of these strategies… is looking at the racial and ethnic disparities that we know are present and exist,” Kafoury said. “As we are focused on all of the jail reduction [strategies], we want to make sure that we’re not continuing to perpetuate the same RED [Racial and Ethnic Disparities] that have existed.”