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Plan outlines early inmate release criteria

Wasco County has adopted an official plan for managing the number of inmates at the regional jail after the early release of a high-profile inmate spurred a disagreement between the sheriff and district attorney.

Sheriff Rick Eiesland said budget reductions and a change in Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility’s budget formula mean that he no longer has the budget to keep everyone in jail that he would like to.

“I’ve been forced to release people to keep the numbers down,” he said.

Every inmate above 50 that Wasco County keeps in NORCOR costs the county an extra $95 per day.

In the past, when the county’s bed levels neared 50 Eiesland used an unofficial set of criteria to decide which inmates were the least dangerous to release. But in May there was a public outcry when he released Lori Fiegenbaum, who was convicted of embezzling more than $94,000 from the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center, after she had served less than half of her one-year sentence.

District Attorney Eric Nisley brought the matter to court and Judge Paul Crowley ordered Fiegenbaum back to jail, saying the sheriff did not have the power to rewrite an inmate’s sentence and that under state law he could only release inmates if the county had an overcrowding emergency plan that delegated that power to him.

The Board of County Commissioners passed such a plan Wednesday. The plan states that when Wasco County’s jail population passes 50 inmates an overcrowding emergency can be declared and the sheriff can release inmates based on a scoring index that was adopted as part of the plan.

The scoring matrix awards points for considerations like past convictions, a history of domestic violence, a crime against a child and whether the inmate was already sentenced or being held pre-trial. The plan states that the inmates with the lowest score will be released unless the district attorney or judge successfully convinces the sheriff that an inmate is one who “represents a danger to a victim, self, or the public, or who otherwise represents a significant public safety risk or if a significant public interest would be served by exclusion from the matrix.”

Nisley told the county commission he understands that Eiesland has to stay within his budget and knows that the sheriff “is working really hard to keep everyone as safe as he can.”

“Through this whole process I don’t have any criticism of that,” he said.

Nisley said he knows the county has finite resources for corrections and that if Eiesland spends his entire jail budget early in the year then there won’t be any money left to keep anyone incarcerated later. That’s why he agreed to help craft the early release scoring matrix.

“I hate this with every ounce of my fiber, but I also realize that it’s necessary, that funding is limited,” he said. “I support this plan only because it’s necessary. The sheriff is trying to do the right thing.”

Eiesland said the plan still gives him the flexibility to override the scoring matrix in situations where he doesn’t believe a low score accurately reflects the danger to the public. For example, if an inmate was jailed on minor theft charges but Eiesland knew they were being investigated for homicide and more charges were likely coming, he wouldn’t release them.

He said part of the reason Wasco County has a higher inmate population at NORCOR than counties like Hood River is convenience. For minor charges like shoplifting and disorderly conduct, it isn’t worth it for Hood River officers to take an hour-long round trip to book someone for a night.

In The Dalles, on the other hand, Eiesland said it is good public relations for officers to haul someone away in handcuffs in front of the manager of the store where they caused problems, even if the person is back on the street an hour later.

“I tell the city, if you want me to keep them in jail, give me $95 a day,” he said.

Eiesland said a few years ago the county could keep between 67 and 70 inmates per day. Nisley said the budget problems causing the 50 bed limit were unfortunate, because the extra beds helped the county keep crime down. He gave the example of a man who was arrested for stealing a 69 cent cup of coffee several years ago and spent five days in jail. The man, a newly-arrived transient with a long criminal history, said he was never coming back to The Dalles again.

Mary Gale, a citizen present at the meeting, urged commissioners not to adopt the release plan. She spoke of a time when her family was victimized and said that when a victim knows that the criminal who caused them serious hurt has served very little jail time because of overcrowding it adds insult to injury.

“You’re setting Wasco County up to be a place to go ahead and commit a crime,” she said.

Nisley and Eiesland both said they understood completely, and agreed that it wasn’t fair, but the money to keep the prisoners had to come from somewhere and many jails in the state couldn’t even afford to stay open anymore.

Commissioner Scott Hege said that the commission needed to pass the resolution because “we do have financial constraints and it’s not a perfect world.”

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