Action pledged on jail problems

from the Portland Tribune, November 2006

Report: Sheriff, county blamed for some of the priciest facilities in U.S.

Incoming Multnomah County Chairman Ted Wheeler and Commissioner Lisa Naito are vowing to tackle a variety of issues raised by District Attorney Michael Schrunk’s bombshell of a report on management of the county jail system.

On Wednesday, Schrunk released a scathing report finding that the county has “some of the most expensive jails of any urban area in the nation,” citing a variety of mismanagement including “rampant” sick-time abuse at the jail system overseen by elected county Sheriff Bernie Giusto.

The report accuses both Giusto and the elected board of county commissioners of a lack of oversight.

Giusto scheduled a news conference for 3 p.m. Thursday, after the Portland Tribune went to press. But whether he says so or not, the internal reaction at his office may very well echo that of Gary Walker, a 28-year Multnomah County sheriff’s office veteran who engineered Giusto’s first campaign before taking a job as Commissioner Lonnie Roberts’ chief of staff.

“It’s a fairly thorough report that requires a fairly thorough review,” Walker said, but added, “There’s a lot of stuff that needs to be questioned.”

For instance, Walker questioned the report’s method of calculating expenses for comparison with other jails. He also questioned the idea of the board having a jail oversight committee, saying it would not respect the independence of the sheriff: “Is the DA going to have a oversight committee to look at (how it handles) the grand jury?” he said.

Wheeler, for his part, told the Portland Tribune on Thursday that fixing the problems cited by the report would be an “immediate priority for my administration when I take office in January. However, I’m not going to wait until January to do something. As a starting point I’ve already asked the board of commissioners for authority to hire outside assistance to design a Multnomah County public safety plan that will address the operational cost issues that the district attorney identified.”

The report, which spanned 63 pages plus 72 pages of appendices, was requested by Commissioner Lisa Naito. In the wake of its release she called it “quite disturbing” in an interview with the Tribune.

She promised to introduce a resolution at the board’s Nov. 30 meeting that would set up a work group to figure out how to implement the DA’s recommendations.

The four-month review entailed the hiring of a financial consultant, hundreds of hours of interviews and trips to jails around the Pacific Northwest as well as to nationally recognized facilities in Florida.

Among the findings:

• Multnomah County pays $157 per inmate per day, compared with $111 a day in King County, Wash.; $103 a day in Clark County, Wash.; and $89 a day in Oregon’s Washington County.

• Although the number of jail beds has been cut by a fifth since 2000, the sheriff’s jail budget has risen by 10 percent after being adjusted for inflation.

• Citing budget pressures, Giusto closed the two least expensive jails in the system in 2005, housing inmates instead at the two remaining facilities. They were more expensive, with up to three times the cost per inmate.

• Overgenerous labor contracts.

• Management practices that have allowed the abuse of sick leave and compensatory time.

• “Extraordinarily high” medical costs. If the services of the corrections health unit overseen by the county health department were privatized, it would save the county $5 million per year.

• The county juvenile health facility overseen not by Giusto but by the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, was “extremely expensive,” costing $401 per inmate per day.

• Poor contracting with other jurisdictions that use Multnomah facilities costs the county nearly $11 million a year.

• Poor oversight of inmates.

The report also faulted the jail’s handling of James Chasse Jr. on Sept. 17 following a controversial altercation with two Portland police officers and a county sheriff’s deputy that led to his in-custody death.

According to the report, which did not directly name Chasse, the jail nurse was not informed of the extent of his injuries, the inmate was not taken immediately to the closest hospital when it looked like his injuries might be life threatening, and the jail lacks a protocol requiring arresting officers to specify the extent of any physical force used on an inmate being booked.

Besides a jail oversight committee, the report makes a variety of recommendations, including leasing the vacant Wapato Jail to the Oregon Department of Corrections, which the report said would save the county $7 million annually.