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A short-term fix.

Byline: The Register-Guard

It's a tribute to both the resourcefulness and desperation of Lane County officials that they have found a way to add 37 sorely needed jail beds without any extra staffing costs.

But the extreme contortions necessary to increase jail capacity - putting high-risk and medium-risk inmates in dormitories instead of keeping them in more secure single cells and pushing the use of jail space uncomfortably close to the limit - increase the very real risks of violent incidents and lawsuits challenging jail conditions.

For the time being, those risks appear reasonable and necessary. Even with the addition of the new beds, the county will be forced to continue releasing inmates prematurely because of overcrowding. Last month alone, nearly 400 inmates were released early, including 23 convicts whose sentences were reduced by an average of one-third. In Lane County, the law-and-order axiom "Do the crime and serve the time" has been diluted to "Do the crime and serve some of the time - maybe."

To create the new beds, officials plan to close all 96 single cells on the jail's third floor. Those cells are now used to house two categories of inmates - those deemed high risk but who are working their way toward dorm placement, and medium-risk inmates who are moving toward maximum-security single cells.

After analyzing the behaviors and risk levels of the two groups, officials concluded that most of the inmates could safely be housed in four second-floor dormitories that had been mothballed because of budget cuts. The dorms will hold between 20 and 24 inmates each. The remaining inmates will be moved into 35 single cells that were also part of the 119 jail beds closed because of budget reductions 18 months ago.

While county officials deserve praise for their resourcefulness, they should keep a close eye on any problems that might result from these changes. They should also remember that others will be watching this experiment with interest, presumably including U.S. District Court Judge Michael Hogan. Nearly two decades ago, Hogan issued a court order limiting the number of beds that the jail could fill at any one time. The cap, which resulted from a lawsuit by inmates who challenged jail conditions resulting from crowding, remains in effect.

Meanwhile, a task force made up of representatives from the county and its cities must forge ahead with its efforts to address a broad range of urgent public safety needs, including a much larger increase in the county's corrections capacity.

So far, however, support for a county-wide solution has been sadly lacking. Earlier this year, the Springfield City Council narrowly - and begrudgingly - voted to allow plans for a new county-wide public safety taxing district to move forward. After the Eugene City Council killed the proposal, the county formed the task force to devise a new plan for addressing public safety needs.

No one on the task force should think the modest new increase in jail beds - or the changes and risks that the increase required - are acceptable substitutes for a long-term strategy to address the county's public safety needs.
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Title Annotation:Editorials; County adds 37 jail beds but needs many more
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Article Type:Editorial
Date:Jul 21, 2005
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