August 27, 2019

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday heard updates on $5.4 million in looming cuts to public safety programs Countywide after a significant reduction in funding from the Oregon Legislature. 

The cuts affect the County’s Department of Community Justice, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office and the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council. They translate to layoffs and losses in public safety staff, services and available jail beds.

Erika Preuitt, interim director for the Department of Community Justice speaks to board.

All of the cuts would leave people on parole or probation, or post prison release, with fewer services and interventions, public safety officials told commissioners. And the cuts will  increase the number of people Multnomah County sends to the state’s prison system. 

Countywide reductions include: 

  • Nineteen staff in the Department of Community Justice’s Adult Services Division, including corrections counselors,probation and parole officers, community justice managers as well as staff in the department's director's office. This includes the elimination of the County’s Change Center Program, a cognitive behavioral therapy program for people on supervision.   

  • A jail dorm or 73 jail beds

  • 7.2 Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office corrections deputy positions 

  • Reductions in Short Term Transitional Leave for people leaving prison

  • Reductions to the County’s Justice Reinvestment Program, which was created as part of a sweeping statewide initiative to reduce state prison costs. 

And because of the cuts, Sheriff Mike Reese said, the County’s jail system would surge past capacity, forcing daily releases of people who otherwise would stay in jail.

“We will see the impact of this,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “We will see it in prison use. We need to be sounding the alarm; we need to be advocating at the state level, so they are aware of the real life impact this will have on our community.”  

Legislature in chaos

Every two years, Oregon’s Legislature allocates money to the state Department of Corrections that’s then passed through to counties to provide supervision and services for those on parole, probation and/or post-prison supervision, and for those who are sentenced to 12 months or less incarceration.

The funding, established through Senate Bill 1145, reimburses counties for the cost of supervising felony offenders and helps pay for treatment, services, and alternative programs meant to help people avoid reoffending.

But the funding formula for counties is based on each county’s share of people supervised statewide. Multnomah County’s share has dropped because its public safety programs have been successful, year over year, at moving people off supervision altogether. The formula does not account for increasing costs to supervise high risk individuals. The Legislature’s allocation for the 2019-21 budget years also did not account for a near 12-percent increase in expected labor costs. And it did not include an extensive, state-mandated Department of Corrections time study that detailed additional costs associated with public safety and community supervision, including housing, substance abuse and mental health services.

“This was one of the most chaotic legislative sessions we’ve seen in a long time,” Jeston Black, director of the County’s Office of Government Relations, told commissioners. 

On May 7, Senate Republicans walked out. It was the first of two walkouts by Senate Republicans in the most recent session. 

Then, in what Black said was the “biggest loss in this conversation,” one of the Legislature’s strongest champions for community corrections, Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, passed away on May 29.

“Senator Winters was truly the champion for community corrections,” Black said. “She understood the value of it and understood the cost savings by providing these services to the state and not sending people to prison”  

Between “the chaos” over the walkouts and the loss of Senator Winters, Black said, lawmakers canceled several legislative committee meetings where public safety policy changes and cuts could have been more thoroughly discussed.

The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday heard updates on $5.4 million in looming cuts to public safety programs Countywide after a significant reduction in funding from the Oregon Legislature.

Among the lost opportunities was a chance to review the time study, which was first submitted in 2018. The study found the cost of supervising an individual increased from $11 a day to $14. The study also found the actual costs of providing supervision services was $50.9 million higher than the state was budgeting.

There are roughly 12,000 offenders under supervision every year, but the County focuses on those who are the highest-risk, said Erika Preuitt, interim director for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice. 

The County has worked hard to decrease caseloads for parole and probation officers, Preuitt said, while providing the right level of supervision and services for high-risk individuals and also  addressing racial and ethnic disparities.

As a result, high-risk offenders supervised by the Department of Community Justice are less likely to reoffend and see lower convictions (58 percent) compared to the statewide average (68 percent).

“It is very devastating for us,” said Preuitt, who called programs like the Change Center, which provide cognitive behavior therapy as well employment and education services “very important. But we can only do these programs with the resources we have available.” 

At the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, which faces a $1.2 million reduction, officials say they’ll have to reduce corrections staff, close one jail dorm in a system with 1,192 beds and eliminate 7.28 corrections deputy positions, including part-time work. 

“This is an extremely difficult, impactful cut to our corrections system countywide,” Sheriff Mike Reese said “leaving our capacity drastically reduced for a jurisdiction of this size.” 

If an additional dorm closes, “we will be over capacity every day beginning September 1,” said Reese, requiring “forced releases of numerous individuals in our custody.” 

Justice Reinvestment

The same state funding formula also applies to the County’s Justice Reinvestment Program, which is administered by the County’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council and was designed to reduce prison spending providing supervision and services for defendants who can be safely kept in the community. The program will see reductions even though it’s serving the same number of people. Moving forward, the program will serve fewer people in order to meet the budget constraint.  

Read more about cuts to the Justice Reinvestment Program

Multnomah County has reduced its share of the state’s supervision population — Oregon’s largest — by successfully supervising eligible defendants in the community so they leave supervision entirely. Under the state’s funding formula, that means the County would lose the funding its relied on to achieve those outcomes. 

“For this biennium, that’s [percentage of people on supervision] significantly lower than its been in the past,” said Abbey Stamp, executive director for the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council.

Tuesday, presenters reiterated the County’s intent to submit two applications to the state’s Criminal Justice Commission for funding to support the Justice Reinvestment Program — but must compete against other counties for a portion of those funds.  

“We see that because we’re are so successful in what we do, and because we’re doing the right thing — we’re penalized for that,” Commissioner Meieran said. “It makes no sense on any level. And so we see decreasing Justice Reinvestment and we want to decrease our most costly and least effective intervention, which is the state prison system, and rather than encouraging us to do that and save money and have better outcomes all around — we are doing just the opposite.” 

On Thursday, the board will vote on how to absorb the reductions and rebalance the funds. 

“The message we’re sending to the Legislature is we know we are being punished for doing a good job and unlike past years, we’re not in the financial position to come in and save the day,” said Chair Deborah Kafoury. “We’re not going to be able to save them from the cuts that they are making to our budget,”   

“The Legislature now meets annually,” Kafoury said. “They are coming back into session in 2020. They have the opportunity to right their wrong. That’s what we are going to be talking with them about. 

They had a very difficult session. They had a lot of wins in other areas but there’s a lot of unfinished business left. They have an opportunity, during the session to make changes, to add more dollars to our budget.”

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Remarks from Board Members

Chair Deborah Kafoury 

“The Legislature now meets annually. They are coming back into session in 2020. They have the opportunity to right their wrong. That’s what we are going to be talking with them about. They had a very difficult session. They had a lot of wins in other areas but there’s a lot of unfinished business left. They have an opportunity, during the session to make changes; to add more dollars to our budget. And not just Multnomah County, it impacts counties and communities around the state. I would just make sure and spread the news that it’s not just the five of us here — it’s community partners, it’s all the associations that people belong to and it’s our members of the community. Contact your legislator and tell them these cuts are unacceptable."    

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson

“I was in the Legislature when we passed House Bill 3194. The whole point was to try to reduce costs for the state and the need to build a new prison both for men and for a women’s prison as well. I think the question we have to throw back to the state is that we’re going to have to take these cuts. We’re going to have to not serve the people the way that we have been doing which has such good benefits. And they’re going to go to prison, which is going to increase those costs and we’ll be back where we started. 

And I think the question is, ‘Is the state even saving any dollars by making these cuts?’ By not doing the investment in  a way that actually helps Multnomah County."

Commissioner Susheela Jayapal

“The phrase that keeps running through my head is penny-wise and pound-foolish. Commissioner Stegmann raised the question of what’s the comparison —  we have at least one comparison that was provided earlier, the time study that said $14 dollars per day for supervision. I don’t know what the number is for prison costs but it’s certainly not $14 per day.

…. I just hope someone is listening to the information you brought to us."

Commissioner Sharon Meieran

“We see that because we’re are so successful in what we do and because we’re doing the right thing — we’re penalized for that. It makes no sense on any level, and so we see decreasing justice reinvestment and we want to decrease our most costly and least effective intervention which is the state prison system and rather than encouraging us to do that and save money and have better outcomes all around, we are doing just the opposite. That is going to be a terrible thing on so many levels. 

We will see the impact of this, we will see it in prison use. We need to be sounding the alarm, we need to be advocating at the state level, so they are aware of the real life impact this will have on our community." 

Commissioner Lori Stegmann

"This is just insanity. It just makes no financial, no business no social [sense] —  I mean every way you look at this, this is pure insanity," said Commissioner Lori Stegmann. I realize that there was a lot of unforeseen things that happened that none of us have control over. I’m looking forward to how we move forward through this. 

As a member of the jail bed usage team, this is just like — really?,"  said Stegmann. "We’re working so hard, diligently, to reduce our jail population and this is the reward we get. So I’m feeling a little bit frustrated. I think we’re on the right track and we’ve made good strides and it’s been hard and challenging and we take a lot of grief for the work that we’ve done but then to have this on top of it. It’s just unconscionable.”