DA’s report slams Multnomah County jail operations – Review cites need for “engaged and informed” county leadership

from the Portland Tribune, by Nick Budnick
November 2006

Late Wednesday afternoon, Multnomah County District Attorney Michael 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 cites lack of oversight both by Giusto, as well as the elected Board County Commissioners.

Asked to comment, Giusto spokesman Lt. Jason Gates said his office had only just seen the report, minutes before it was posted on Schrunk’s website at 4:45 p.m., at www.mcda.us.

“We just got it,” Gates said. “There is no response because we haven’t had a chance to review it. We’ll review it and probably make a statement later this week.”

Researched in tandem with a grand jury composed of citizens overseen by top aides to Schrunk, the four-month review included interviews with hundreds of people, visits to jail facilities around the Pacific Northwest, as well as to nationally recognized jail facilities in Florida, according to the report. It also entailed hiring a financial consultant to pore through sheriff’s financial records.

The review found that Multnomah County pays $157 per day per inmate, compared with $111 a day in King County, Wash.; $103 a day in Clark County, Wash., and $89 a day in Washington County, Oregon.

According to the review, the reasons for the higher costs in Multnomah County were:

• 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. These 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 report, which was 62 pages long and also included 72 pages of appendices, did not stop there. Among its other findings:

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

• Poor contracting with other jurisdictions that use Multnomah facilities costs the county nearly $11 million a year. “In effect, Multnomah County is subsidizing other jurisdictions by housing their prisoners while matrix-releasing its own inmates, who then commit more crimes against the citizens of Multnomah County.”

• Poor oversight of inmates.

The report also faulted the jail’s handling of James Chasse Jr. on Sept. 17, following the controversial altercation with two Portland police officers and a county sheriff’s deputy, leading to Chasse’s 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; he 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.

The report makes a variety of recommendations, including setting up an independent jail oversight commission to assist the board, as well as leasing the vacant Wapato Jail to the state Department of Corrections, which the report said would save the county $7 million annually.

It also recommended “engaged and informed county” leadership at the sheriff’s and county commission level. “County leadership in the board must understand the operations and costs of the sheriff’s office; and it currently does not, to the detriment of county taxpayers.”

Asked for comment, Mike Beard, spokesman for county Chairwoman Diane Linn, said: “She hasn’t seen the report, she hasn’t been briefed on it, and there’s no way she can comment until then.”