Budget cuts put jails in a bind

Counties get creative on how to deal with overcrowding, reduced staff

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EUGENE, Ore. — A scenario that police in western Oregon feared came true in the thick of holiday season after two dozen inmates were freed from a county jail that could no longer afford to hold them.

Less than an hour after one low-level offender walked out, authorities say, he was ordering a bank teller hand over money.

In a time of budget cuts, cases where inmates get out of jail with little punishment only to commit more serious crimes shortly after their release have become all too common, authorities say.

Many in law enforcement predicted this would happen, and it could get worse if the nation goes over the so-called fiscal cliff.

The recession and a steady reduction in federal subsidies to timber counties have led Oregon sheriffs and district attorneys to juggle deep cuts. There are fewer jail beds, sheriff’s patrols, prosecutors, parole officers and specialized investigators.

Prosecutors have to toss out more than a quarter of the cases that cross their desks, just because there aren’t enough people to handle them.

“It makes me crazy,” said Patricia Perlow, chief deputy district attorney for Lane County.

When Christopher Franklin Weaver was released the week after Thanksgiving it represented the sort of decision that has become routine for law enforcement officials. There wasn’t enough room for all the offenders, and since he was in custody on a nonviolent parole violation, he was deemed safe enough to turn loose.

“Everybody we’re releasing is dangerous to society,” said Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner. “But we’re having to choose which ones to keep and which ones to let out.”

As common as such lesser-of-two-evils calls have become, authorities could find themselves making them more often depending on what happens in the nation’s capital. If the ongoing negotiations between Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama end without an agreement and automatic spending reductions kick in, it would trigger an 8 percent cut in nearly $2 billion in federal grants that go to state and local law enforcement.

That would come on top of $1.5 billion cuts to federal law enforcement grants since fiscal 2010, said Elizabeth Pyke, director of government affairs for the National Criminal Justice Association.

“It would not be unreasonable to envision a day in the not too distant future when federal support for state and local law enforcement will be virtually eliminated,” she said.

As the details get worked out, the grants could take even deeper cuts, as appropriators shift funding to higher priority agencies such as the FBI. Over the next nine years of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the slashes would become deeper and deeper.

“Every time we have a budget cut, we have to get creative,” said Lane County sheriff’s Sgt. Rob White. “But we’re getting pretty good at it.”