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Fate of jail in Springfield goes to voters.

Byline: Jack Moran The Register-Guard


SPRINGFIELD - The word "progressive" doesn't usually spring to mind in describing the politics of Lane County's second-largest city.

But in trying to cut the local crime rate, Springfield unquestionably is ahead of the curve.

By 2010, the city hopes to build and open a 100-bed jail to house people suspected or convicted of committing misdemeanors. Voters in November will play a crucial role in that effort, deciding a property tax measure that would raise about half the funding needed to run the jail.

Because of its size, the Springfield jail would be unlike any other in Oregon. The only cities in the state sanctioned to hold sentenced offenders behind bars are Cottage Grove, Junction City and Reedsport. At 11 beds, the Reedsport jail is the largest.

Most other Oregon cities have temporary lockups or holding facilities where prisoners can be jailed for a few hours after their arrest. After that, it's up to counties to handle incarceration.

Springfield's unique drive to build its own jail was born out of frustration with Lane County and its inability to keep low- and mid-level lawbreakers imprisoned. Budget and space shortages have crippled many Oregon counties' ability to effectively run their jails.

Springfield police say 88 percent of the people they book into the county jail are released within 24 hours; and virtually every single one is back on the streets within 48 hours.

"What we've realized in Springfield is that sometimes you have to solve a problem on your own," Mayor Sid Leiken said. "We've seen this revolving door at the county jail, and we believe that opening a jail here is simply the right thing to do. I'm hopeful the citizens of Springfield agree."

Voters indicated support for the city's jail plan when they approved a $28.65 million bond measure in 2004 to pay for building a new downtown justice center that would include a new police department, municipal courtrooms and - if operational money can be secured - a jail. But the City Council has struggled without success for two years to come up the operating cash. The November ballot measure is the city's last-ditch effort.

Springfield officials believe a new jail would help cut the city's high property crime rate, which consistently ranks at or near the top of the list among Oregon cities. The level of violent crime in Springfield is not out of line, but offenses such as car break-ins, vandalism and theft are more common here than almost anywhere else in the state.

Springfield Police Chief Jerry Smith expects that to worsen as the population grows - unless the city locks up more misdemeanor criminals.

"People are not being held accountable, and we need to do something now," Smith said, adding, "The misdemeanant of today is the felon of tomorrow."

But petty criminals today know they can probably get away with breaking the law without spending time behind bars. Lane County prosecutors do not pursue most misdemeanor cases.

Smith said his officers typically opt to cite suspects into Springfield's municipal court instead of spending time arresting and transporting them to the county jail in Eugene. Without the threat of incarceration, many people skip their scheduled court dates.

"The rest of the (criminal justice) system can't function if the jail doesn't work," Smith said. "We can keep throwing money at hiring more police and other people to work in the system, but if we don't do something about incarceration, we're not going to improve any outcomes."

With a big jail of its own, the chief expects that Springfield could quickly put 75 offenders behind bars through outstanding warrant and other arrests. He said that after a year or two, the city's jail population would decline and stabilize, and the city could lease out as many as 40 of the 100 jail beds to Eugene and other cities in Lane County.

"We expect to see a substantial reduction in crime in Springfield," Smith said. "And the benefit (of a city jail) is to the entire metro area and the rest of the county."

Springfield officials have studied other municipal detention centers. The city found that in Santa Ana, Calif., crime dropped in half after a 480-bed jail opened there in 1997.

Outside Oregon, city jails are somewhat common. Several Washington cities have opened 50- to 80-bed municipal jails in the past decade.

Smith said many Oregon cities ran jails 20 and 30 years ago. But most closed because counties at that time could afford to run adequate jails. State law requires counties to maintain jails for pretrial and sentenced offenders.

One of the few remaining Oregon city jails is in Junction City, which for decades has run a four-bed facility.

"It's been a huge crime deterrent for our city," Junction City police Sgt. Chuck Salsbury said. "We've sent people to jail here for things like stealing tomato plants. I've heard people say, 'I'm never going back to Junction City (because of the jail).' That's fine with us."

Cottage Grove opened an eight-bed jail 20 years ago for reasons similar to the ones cited by Springfield officials.

"We did it because there was no accountability for people who commit crimes in Cottage Grove," Police Chief Mike Grover said. "It's worked out great for us."

Florence's voter-approved justice center includes 18 adult cells but operates as a temporary holding facility where arrestees stay until they can be transferred to the Lane County Jail. City spokeswoman Jacque Morgan said Florence hopes to someday manage the facility as a jail for offenders sentenced through its municipal court.

Oakridge Police Chief Louis Gomez said the city later this year plans to turn its temporary lockup into a three-bed jail to house people who fail to appear in court or pay fines ordered by judges. Oakridge officers would first have to train to become certified corrections officials.

"It takes some extra work to run your own jail, but I think it's worth it to us for the good of the community and the chance to hold people accountable," Gomez said. "We've got to do what we can for our own com- munity."

Springfield Mayor Leiken said voter approval of the city's 2004 bond measure opened a few eyes among leaders of other Oregon municipalities.

"Like that one, this is an election that's being watched," Leiken said. "If it works out, maybe people will start using the word 'progressive' in another way when they think of Springfield."

Lane County in November is asking voters to approve an income tax that would, among other things, allow the county to open about 180 additional jail beds. But county officials say even if their measure is approved, they would consider leasing space from Springfield if the city jail is constructed because more beds would still be needed to incarcerate offenders.


Springfield voters in November will decide a ballot measure that would increase property taxes for five years to help fund operations of a planned city jail. The five-year levy, which would cost the owner of a home assessed at $100,000 a total of $109 a year, would also pay for eight police officer jobs and 14 other positions in the city police department and municipal court that are now funded through a temporary levy approved in 2002.

Size: The jail would house up to 100 prisoners.

Inmates: The facility would be staffed to house only male offenders suspected or convicted of committing misdemeanors.

Who pays: The property tax levy would raise about half the money needed to run the jail, which is expected to cost between $2.5 million and $2.9 million annually. The remaining money would come from sources that include charging inmates for time spent behind bars, leasing jail beds to other jurisdictions and canceling a $165,000 annual city contract with Lane County for the use of five beds in the county jail.

Where: The jail is planned to be part of a $29 million, voter-approved justice center complex in downtown Springfield, a block west of City Hall. The complex will include a new police station and municipal courtrooms. City officials have said they will not build the jail if operational funding cannot be secured.
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Title Annotation:Government; The city can't build its new facility until it comes up with the cash to operate it
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Sep 17, 2006
Previous Article:BUSINESS BRIEFLY.

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