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Springfield looks at way to keep criminals in jail.

Byline: Diane Dietz The Register-Guard

Frustrated by the revolving door at the county jail, Springfield is considering whether to build its own 100-bed city lockup.

That would mean the city could punish the misdemeanor drunken drivers, shoplifters and vandals who sail through the county jail because the system no longer has the resources to imprison them.

"We're sending the message that you can commit crimes and not have any consequences," Springfield Councilor Dave Ralston said at a council work session Tuesday.

Crime would drop off within a year if criminals discovered they'd have to pay for their crimes, Ralston said. Then, Springfield could rent any excess jail beds to Eugene, which is experiencing the same inability to lock up low-level offenders.

Springfield has yet to forge a firm proposal, but a combination jail/police headquarters is likely to cost in excess of $20 million. The jail could go anywhere but would probably be built on city-owned land downtown.

The jail would require a voter-approved ballot measure to cover construction costs. The council plans to continue deliberations at a July 19 meeting, consider a combination jail/police station construction ballot title in August and then vote on whether to proceed by Sept. 2.

Rising costs and budget cuts

Springfield officials have long grumbled about the county's inability to hold low-level offenders before trial or to guarantee they served their full sentences after conviction. In 1999, a Springfield municipal court judge urged the city to build a 50-bed jail. In 2002, the City Council ordered a study on the issue.

But in the past year, a series of cutbacks at the county jail has exacerbated the problems. The jail occasionally has become too crowded to hold people accused of first-degree robbery, sexual abuse and assault - all violent Measure 11 crimes.

Each year, Springfield buys five county jail spaces and controls who serves time in them, so the municipal judge or the police chief can require that five inmates are held under any circumstances.

But that guarantee comes with a sharp annual increase, Springfield Police Chief Jerry Smith said. In 1995, the annual fee for the five spaces was $25,000. "And I thought that was exorbitant," he said.

Since, the price has doubled every four or five years and is now $165,000 annually. Springfield officials say they're sure they could hold many more inmates for the same amount of money.

First, the city could hire jailers that worked for less than the sworn officers the county jail employs. Second, municipal offenders aren't as likely to need the maximum security that the county jail offers, Smith said. Third, with shorter sentences that municipal offenses bring - about 30 days - the jail won't have to manage the inmates' long-term health issues.

Finally, modern jail design - pods of 25 two-person cells - allows for efficient operation.

Smith estimates it would take about $1.5 million annually to operate the jail. The municipal court could cover about $500,000 from stepped up collection of fees and bail forfeitures annually. Then, the city could roll in the $165,000 it's now spending at the county jail - and, finally, rent out any excess spaces to keep the city jail in the black.

City jails have an advantage in that fees paid to the municipal courts stay locally, compared with fees paid to the circuit court, which go to the state, Smith said.

Capt. John Clague, who manages the county jail, said losing the revenue from Springfield's five spaces would be a bit of a problem because it would mean losing some staff at the county jail. He said he'd seek replacement money to keep all the staff.

Clague said he's maintaining a neutral opinion on the Springfield proposal, but he wonders whether the city recognizes the true cost of running a jail.

"Operating it over a course of 20 to 30 years, that's when you start racking up the dollars," he said. "(But) if they can pull it off, more power to them."

Survey shows support

Pulling it off may be the challenge. Voters in Lane County have proven themselves allergic to public safety ballot measures, dashing them 10 times in the past five years.

But Springfield officials have reason to hope. A survey of 401 Springfield voters by Advanced Market Research in June found that 58 percent could support the concept of building a combined police station/jail.

The support dropped to 55 percent when the survey addresses the cost - proposing a $70 tax increase on a $100,000 home to pay for the project.

"Sufficient numbers of people in Springfield are aware that Springfield has a crime problem," Smith said, "and they're willing to put people in jail and hold them accountable."
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Title Annotation:Government; Officials discuss the idea of the city building its own jail with new police quarters
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jul 7, 2004
Words:785
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