Lt. Dan Penland, commander of the Jackson County Jail, surveys a new addition that will bring the number of jail beds up to 292. But Penland says he'd need about 600 beds to properly handle all the criminals in Jackson County.

Changes designed to keep more prisoners locked up

If you do the crime, you may not do the time in Jackson County.

Criminals have figured out that the Jackson County Jail has run out of space, and they may spend little, if any, time behind bars.

In 2013, 43 percent of the 11,482 people lodged in jail were released almost as quickly as they were brought in because there was no room to house them.

More than a quarter of scofflaws hauled into jail last month for crimes ranging from drugs to assault had failed to show up for court appearances in this county and others.

Medford police have seen a 156-percent increase in the number of warrants issued for failure to appear from 2012 to 2013.

"It is very frustrating having to deal with this catch-and-release system," Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau said. "The bottom line is there clearly is not enough room for the number of criminals we have."

To put some of the sting back into jail time, the Jackson County Jail rolled out a pilot program a month ago that might cut down on those failing to appear for court and keep more high-risk prisoners behind bars.

"We are releasing the best of the worst," said sheriff Lt. Dan Penland, jail commander.

At the same time, the jail will add 62 new beds in April that will boost its capacity to 292 beds.

"As the sheriff has said, 'The only deterrent to crime is an empty jail bed,' " Penland said.

Under the new system, jail officials now assess each suspect to determine criminal history, community ties and the likelihood they might commit another offense.

If they get a score of two or less, they will be considered low risk and could be released from jail. A score of three to four means medium risk, and a five to six is high risk for failure to appear in court.

As a result, those with charges of assault, strangulation, endangering and menacing could be cut loose if they have no priors and have strong community ties, indicating they're likely to show up for their court date. Another suspect facing charges of disorderly conduct might remain in jail because of prior convictions, a lack of community ties and a history of failing to show up for court appearances.

"We're trying something different," Penland said. "If it doesn't work, we will come up with a better plan."

The jail previously assessed each suspect based on current charges, often cutting many loose who had multiple failures to appear.

The jail previously listed the prisoners who were released to prevent overcrowding as "forced release." Now, prisoners are released because they are considered "low risk" or to prevent the jail from reaching its capacity of prisoners, referred to as a "cap" release.

However, if the jail reaches its capacity, Penland said some high-risk offenders could still be released even under the new system.

At any given moment, the jail has a large number of prisoners who can't be let out, which means there's less space for newcomers.

By law, the jail must hold those suspected of Measure 11 crimes. Also, domestic violence suspects are held for 12 hours to allow for a cooling-off period.

A judge can order a prisoner who violated the rules of the drug court to remain in jail and not be subject to the new release policy.

On Friday, the jail had 31 federal prisoners and 11 immigration holds. The jail receives money from the federal government to house these prisoners.

For the community, it is difficult to imagine letting someone loose for charges such as assault or theft, though it happens every day, Penland said.

"I'm sure to the public that looks scary," he said.

Penland said he estimates that he would need a jail with about 600 beds to properly handle the number of prisoners in Jackson County.

"It's a community problem," Penland said.

Lack of jail beds is also a problem for the courts and the District Attorney's Office. Judges may sentence someone to 30 days in jail after his court hearing, but the jail may have to turn him loose because of the lack of jail beds.

District Attorney Beth Heckert said it's too early to tell whether the new system will be effective.

She said the bugs are still being ironed out, and in some instances a suspect who she thought should have been kept behind bars was cut loose.

"There have been a few times where someone was released, and we're asking why did that happen," she said.

Domestic violence cases are particularly sensitive to deal with, and it is sometimes questionable whether the offenders should be released even after the 12-hour cooling-off period.

"Does that mean they're safe to go home?" Heckert said.

One of the most frustrating issues for law enforcement is the high number of repeat offenders. In some cases, a suspect was released and was caught a few hours later committing other crimes a few blocks from the jail.

"They will get in and get out, and suddenly they have a new charge," Heckert said.

The criminal justice system worked better when the county had a release assistance program, Heckert said. Two officers were assigned to assess suspects before they were released from jail. The officers also suggested bail and made their recommendations to the court.

"Once that program ended, we saw the forced releases going crazy," she said.

The release assistance program officially ended on Jan. 31, 2012, because of a lack of funding. In 2012, the number of forced releases hit 4,766, compared to 2,409 in 2011 — a nearly 100-percent increase.

Bail is usually set for everyone brought into jail, but even the bail amount can become meaningless under the current system.

"If you're going to get forced release, the bail goes out the window," Heckert said.

The District Attorney's Office hasn't prosecuted failures to appear for years because it is overwhelmed with other criminal cases, and there aren't the resources to go after the offenders or the jail beds to hold them, Heckert said.

She said she remains hopeful the new system will keep more offenders with failures to appear behind bars.

The inability to hold people in jail and the impact on the criminal justice system are well known to the criminals, Heckert said.

"If you tell someone they're going to get a jail sentence, they should get a jail sentence," Heckert said. "Word gets out among criminals that they won't spend time in jail."

The Medford Police Department had certain repeat offenders who were no sooner arrested than they were back out on the streets. Within hours or days, the offender committed another crime.

To ease the problem, the police department rents out two beds in the jail to deal with suspects who habitually fail to appear for a court date or repeatedly commit crimes, said Budreau.

By renting the beds, the worst repeat offenders are kept behind bars, he said.

Medford police would like to see the number of failures to appear drop as dramatically as they have increased.

Budreau said every warrant issued for someone's arrest involves considerable time for the records clerks as well as for the officers.

"Our warrants have been through the roof for the past several years," he said. "It's just a waste of resources."

As a result, the records staff falls behind in paperwork, delaying other police reports, he said.

Medford police also worry that many of these revolving-door criminals will commit other crimes that could trigger a potential use of force by officers, Budreau said.

"We just have too many criminals," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or Follow him on Twitter at

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