A new law that downgraded some drug offenses to misdemeanors in an effort to curb incarcerations appears to be having little effect at the Jackson County Jail, but it does streamline many drug cases in Circuit Court, authorities say.
The Jackson County Jail remains near or at its 292-bed capacity, with a steady stream of drug offenders coming and going, according to Lt. Josh Aldrich, who oversees jail operations.
"It's probably pretty much exactly the same as it was before the law changed," Aldrich said.
Starting Aug. 15, Oregon House Bill 2355 made possession of small amounts of methamphetamine, heroin, cocaine and other illegal drugs a misdemeanor, rather than a felony, for first- and second-time offenders.
Supporters hope the bill will help drug dabblers avoid spiraling into more serious problems, as a felony on their record can keep them from getting a job, education, even housing.
“Too often, individuals with addiction issues find their way to the doorstep of the criminal justice system when they are arrested for possession of a controlled substance,” Kevin Campbell, executive director of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police, wrote in a letter of support for the bill. “Unfortunately, felony convictions in these cases also include unintended and collateral consequences including barriers to housing and employment and a disparate impact on minority communities.”
The law also aims to reduce racial profiling by requiring police officers to record demographic information such as age, gender and race during routine pedestrian and traffic stops. That information will be analyzed by the Oregon Criminal Justice Commission, who will notify departments of disparities so they can adjust their policies and procedures.
Medford and Ashland police, along with the Jackson County Sheriff's Office, said it's too soon to spot any trends in drug arrests since the law went into effect.
Sheriff's Sgt. Julie Denney said conditions such as the suspect's criminal history and whether the small quantity of drugs was being sold determines whether the charge is a misdemeanor or felony by the time it gets to the District Attorney’s Office.
"The charge that a person actually gets (after arrest) may be different," Denney said.
More than 55 percent of the 381 drug-possession cases the DA's office filed from mid-August to Nov. 22 are misdemeanors, according to Chief Deputy District Attorney Jeremy Markiewicz. Only 171 felony drug-possession cases went to a grand jury.
District Attorney Beth Heckert said that whenever there's a doubt in the police reports or evidence, such as an omitted quantity, prosecutors lean toward the lesser charge.
"We're probably erring on the side of making it a misdemeanor," Heckert said, adding that deputy DAs can refile the charge later if the evidence changes.
In court, the misdemeanor cases make it simpler for someone to plead guilty and move forward, according to Circuit Judge Lorenzo Mejia, who said anecdotally he's noticed the law has streamlined drug cases.
Mejia said that suspects admitting to felony cases must sign a waiver at a later hearing and typically need the aid of a court-appointed defense lawyer. For someone who just wants out of jail and on to the next step, the law change gets them processed quicker.
"People are a lot quicker to plead if it’s a misdemeanor," Mejia said.
The law change hasn't noticeably impacted the number of criminal cases on his docket — sometimes 100 in a day, with most suspects failing to appear on drug or related property crime cases.
“I think it’s going to remain the same,” Mejia said. “People don’t come to court, we have no way of enforcing that.”
Aldrich said that because of jail overcrowding, even the felony drug suspects are released and misdemeanor cases have a lower priority, making the new law's impact "really almost immeasurable."
"Unfortunately for every person that comes in, we're releasing somebody," Aldrich said.
Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau, who heads the multi-agency Medford Area Drug and Gang Enforcement task force, said his team focuses on dealers and quantities greater than one or two grams considered personal use.
"We're really after the dealers," Budreau said. "That law really impacts the low-level user."
MADGE makes arrests on the misdemeanor charge, however, as a supplement to felony charges or when officers execute search warrants on "dry holes” — instances when a suspected dealer is found no longer in possession of dealer quantities.
Another aim of the law is to help make drug treatment opportunities across the state more uniform. While Jackson County offers conditional discharges and opportunities to expunge records through drug court and drug treatment, available programs have varied widely among other counties, with low-income counties getting the short shrift.
The DA's Office still offers a conditional-discharge program for first-time drug offenders, Heckert said, though prosecutors' argument for entering the program has changed.
Defendants who successfully complete programs can have the misdemeanor drug conviction removed from their records, just as first-time offenders could have their felony removed prior to the law change.
Threat of a felony conviction used to be the motivator, but Heckert said prosecutors now appeal to a person's "common sense" because both misdemeanor probation and the county's conditional discharge program require drug treatment.
"It's not like there's a benefit for not doing it," Heckert said.
There were 28 enrolled in the conditional discharge program between mid-August and mid-November last year, and 26 enrolled this year, "essentially no difference," according to Markiewicz.
Defense lawyer Alyssa Bartholomew said that for some, the threat of a felony was a motivator to take part in drug treatment court programs.
"A lot of times people try drugs for the first time and go down the wrong road," Bartholomew said. "When they end up in drug court, having a felony hanging over their head can be an incentive for becoming a productive member of society."
She said a felony drug conviction has far-reaching consequences.
People can lose their ability to get college financial aid, including scholarships and grants. They can also lose access to government-funded, low-income housing and other benefits, Bartholomew said.
Convicted felons can have difficulty getting jobs. Certain professionals, including doctors and nurses, can lose their careers altogether, she said.
"Having a felony can also make it hard to be a productive member of society," Bartholomew said.
She said she understands there are good intentions behind the move to reduce some felony drug crimes to misdemeanors.
"I think the idea was to try and save jail and prison space and to help people get back in their communities and on their feet. My hope is it helps people get into programs they need and that they are able to use tools in the community like drug treatment and facilities we have for rehabilitation," Bartholomew said.
She said people usually need help to break free of drugs.
"It's an addiction. It sucks your soul," Bartholomew said.
Mejia said he believes the law is a good idea, understanding that a felony conviction can have similar impacts as the addiction itself.
"I wouldn't say it ruins a life, but it certainly hinders a life," Mejia said of a felony. "I think it's much better to get someone in treatment with a misdemeanor conviction rather than a felony conviction."
— Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat. Reporter Vickie Aldous contributed to this story.