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December 5, 2005 - Wall Street Journal (US)

Freedom Walk

With Jails Bulging, Some Sheriffs Let Inmates Go Early

By Gary Fields

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

BEND, Ore. -- Ben Peles was lying on a bunk in a two-man cell at the Deschutes County Jail here when the intercom squawked his name. Sheriff's deputies told him to roll up his stuff and prepare to leave.

Mr. Peles, a 26-year-old air-conditioner installer, was taken aback. He had landed in jail only 10 hours earlier to start serving a two-week sentence for possession of methamphetamine and theft. Shivering in a sweatshirt in the November night air -- it had been warm and sunny when he walked in at 10:30 a.m. -- he couldn't believe his luck. "I've never heard of them releasing anybody this quick," he said, waiting outside the jail for his girlfriend to pick him up.

Mr. Peles's unexpected freedom walk is becoming a regular ritual at jails and prisons in Oregon and at least half a dozen other states. These states have long grappled with overcrowding by trying to find money for new facilities and stuffing more prisoners into existing cells. More recently, some have turned to a last-ditch solution: opening the doors and letting inmates go.

The brunt of such decisions often falls on sheriffs at local jails. Traditionally holding pens for minor offenders or suspects awaiting trial, jails are increasingly accepting surplus inmates from state prisons. Here in Deschutes County, Sheriff Les Stiles and jail commander Capt. Ruth Jenkin expect to turn loose 900 inmates ahead of their normal release time this year, up from 335 last year.

"There's not a day goes by that Ruth and I don't worry and ask ourselves, 'Is this the one? Is this the person who is going to go out there and commit a crime that is going to be a tragedy?' " says Mr. Stiles.

Of the 2.2 million people incarcerated in 2004, 713,990 were in local jails, up from 486,474 in 1994. The number of violent criminals in local jails has risen even faster, more than doubling over a decade to 160,300 in 2002. Jail-related costs for local governments totaled $16.7 billion in 2001, the last year for which figures are available, up from $3 billion in 1982.

One reason local jails have more violent offenders is the overflow from state prisons. By the 1990s every state had some form of mandatory minimum sentencing or truth-in-sentencing provisions that helped increase the inmate population. Perhaps the best-known was California's "three strikes" law, enacted in 1994, which allowed the state to sentence three-time felons to life in prison regardless of the seriousness of the crime.

In Oregon, the state legislature, anticipating prison crowding, mandated in 1995 that all state inmates serving sentences of less than a year would be housed in local jails. County officials who are being forced to release prisoners early criticize the state, saying they haven't been given the funds to handle the extra jail population.

In Indiana, more than 12,000 prisoners have been released from the Marion County Jail in the last four years because of overcrowding, including more than 2,600 this year. In Connecticut, where the state corrections department also runs the local jails, officials have released more than 13,000 prisoners judged to pose the least threat to public safety since 2000.

Ultimately the issue has its roots in the contradictory impulses of state voters, who want to put more criminals behind bars but are reluctant to pay higher taxes to build and operate prisons and jails. Advocates of tougher laws say there is little arguing with their success: Violent-crime rates in 2004 were at their lowest rate since the U.S. Justice Department began collecting the data in 1973.

Local jails are often not equipped to deal with tougher criminals. In July 2003, an 18-year-old man was thrown into a general-population jail cell in Grant County, Ky., after a traffic violation. Three other criminals serving time at the jail because of overcrowding at state prisons sodomized him.

In November, Texas death-row prisoner Charles Victor Thompson was sent to a county jail in downtown Houston so he could be resentenced in the murders of his ex-girlfriend and her new boyfriend. Mr. Thompson changed out of his prison overalls and slipped away after convincing deputies he was with the state attorney general's office. He was recaptured three days later outside of a Louisiana liquor store.

At the Deschutes County Jail, an 11-year-old brown building with modern shatterproof glass instead of bars in many cells, the changes to deal with a more-dangerous inmate population are visible. In years past, prisoners there on serious violations were allowed into "day rooms," where they could watch television. Now they're more likely to be restricted to their cells for extended periods. In the segregation unit, which is reserved for informants and inmates with medical or behavior problems, prisoners used to walk freely with one deputy as an escort. Now they must put their arms through the food slots and be handcuffed before leaving their cells. Each officer guards no more than 10 prisoners, down from 20 earlier.

Getting Tougher

Oregon got significantly tougher on crime in the 1990s thanks to voter initiatives, including one in 1994 that required minimum sentences for nearly two dozen crimes. At first, local officials were pleased: The tougher sentences rooted out "a lot of the frequent fliers" at local jails and locked them up in state prison, says David Burright, executive director of the Oregon State Sheriffs' Association.

Pretty soon, though, state prisons got full. The population rose from 6,636 inmates in 1994 to 8,531 by January 1997, the month those prisons started sending short-term prisoners to local lockups as a result of the state's 1995 law. About 9% of the state's prisoners, or 1,160 people, were serving their time in local jails as of this July, up from 6% two years earlier. In many counties, sheriffs are using money from their own budgets to house state prisoners.

Mr. Stiles, a law officer for 29 years including 16 years with the Bend police department, ran for sheriff in 2000 on a platform of cutting costs without raising taxes. He defeated the incumbent with 60% of the vote. His 6-foot-2, 215-pound frame and bald pate give him an instantly recognizable, Kojak-like appearance.

Bend, the county seat, has seen crime rise along with an influx of people from other states that has lifted the population to 63,000 from 20,000 in 1990. Crimes in one category that includes rape and car theft have risen more than 50% in the past four years. Mr. Stiles says the growing methamphetamine problem in Oregon is largely to blame.

In October 2003, Mr. Stiles was forced to start releasing prisoners early from his 228-bed jail to make room for more dangerous ones coming in. Using a computer, the staff now compiles the prisoners' criminal histories along with other data such as their record of showing up for court. The computer uses algorithms to predict which prisoners are the least likely to commit major crimes when they leave. Inmates sent by the state who have certain serious convictions are automatically ineligible for release.

Once these "matrix" scores are computed, the inmates with the lowest totals are let go. The number depends on how many beds the sheriff needs to clear out for incoming inmates.

The first inmate to walk out of the Deschutes County Jail using the matrix system was Jodie Ackerman on Oct. 11, 2003. She was awaiting trial on car-theft charges. Within 24 hours, she had committed at least 11 crimes, including stealing three cars, nearly running down a pedestrian and breaking into a business.

"It was not, to say the least, a good start," said Mr. Stiles.

Ms. Ackerman, now 26 years old, served less than a year in jail but then promptly stole another car. She was once again arrested in October. Now back in jail, Ms. Ackerman says she will enter a guilty plea and likely get an 11-month sentence.

When Ms. Ackerman was first released in 2003, the average matrix score was 16. Now, it is routine for people with scores above 40 to be released. Gone are the drunken drivers and people sleeping off a drinking binge, says the sheriff. They've been replaced by prisoners with drug addictions or methamphetamine dealers. "Eventually it will be a jail filled with all really bad people," says Mr. Stiles.

Not surprisingly, word of the matrix system has filtered out to the crooks. As Amber Dawn Cartrette, 26, was escorted into the booking area of Mr. Stiles's jail one November afternoon, she asked the sergeant on duty, "Are you matrixing anybody right now? What's my score?"

Ms. Cartrette, who seemed much thinner than her listed weight of 135 pounds, was a veteran of the matrix system, having been released from the same jail twice in the previous few months. On May 9, after she was arrested for possession of methamphetamine, she was released, hitched a ride to Portland with friends and skipped her court date. She repeated the performance again in October and was released on Oct. 9 only to miss another court date.

Tears rolling down her pale cheeks, she promised the deputies that if given another chance she would make her court dates and check into addiction treatment.

Even though her arrest record was nearly two inches thick -- the result of her addiction, Ms. Cartrette said -- it didn't suggest a propensity toward violent crime. That gave her hope of getting out again and returning to her job as a stripper at a local nightclub. The jail has only 28 beds for women.

Mr. Stiles, who from his second-floor office often sees the inmates whooping with delight in the parking lot after being released early, says the growing need to keep prisoner numbers in check is making him consider following the lead of some nearby counties.

In Marion County, Sheriff Raul Ramirez has cut back on the jailing of suspects. Those who were arrested for crimes such as forgery and car theft used to stay in jail, but now they merely get citations and an order to show up in court. Mr. Ramirez says he has released more than 4,000 prisoners this year through matrixing because of overcrowding.

Bad Message

Sheriffs acknowledge that releasing prisoners early sends a bad message but they say their hands are tied. Spending three-quarters of each shift making sure prisoners don't escape and one-quarter of the shift trying to figure out who to push out is "maddening," says Mr. Stiles.

The sheriff and his deputies worry they'll get blamed if someone who gets out early commits a serious crime. "It's not a matter of if it's going to happen but when," says Mr. Stiles. In 2004, a Lane County, Ore., man who had been locked up for stalking his ex-wife was released early by the matrix system because of jail crowding in the county. On the day 43-year-old Tomas Ortega-Benitez was due in court, he took Paula Benitez, 46, hostage, then killed her. He killed himself several hours later during a standoff with police.

Thursdays are often the beginning of four-day run of forced releases because that's when county inmates who were arrested outside of the county are transferred in. On a Thursday night a few weeks ago, the jail's population increased by 13. Dark blankets and pillows were lined up in neat, folded piles on the floor for the prisoners coming in.

Sgt. Brook Van der Zwiep, a shift supervisor, spent three hours scrolling through criminal records and other information needed to matrix inmates, marking the points with a purple highlighter. Glancing at patrol cars pulling up, he did a quick calculation. "We'll have to let some of them out," he said.

The calculations eventually showed that six prisoners had to go to make room for the new arrivals. The average score for those released was 31.3. Mr. Peles, the air-conditioner installer, and five other inmates stood in a hall together in blue jumpsuits, white athletic socks and slippers provided by the jail before going into rooms to change into street clothes. One by one they were processed and were led through five security doors before they were outside. Meanwhile, handcuffed inmates were being brought in through another door.

As Mr. Peles waited for his ride, the other five released prisoners walked out into the dark parking lot, one by one. One man was met by two women who hugged him. They walked to nearby Highway 20 and threw their thumbs up in the air to hitch a ride.

Mr. Peles's ride barely came to a stop in the parking lot before he reached in, grabbed a coat and hopped inside. "I'm getting the hell out of this town," he said.

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