Andy Atkinson / MT File Photo

The Jackson County Jail in downtown Medford has released fewer inmates due to overcrowding than at the same time last year.

Jail 'revolving door' may be slowing, not stopping

Now back to full capacity, the Jackson County Jail released nearly a quarter fewer inmates in the first five months of 2018 compared with the same period last year — but almost half of those releases were still due to overcrowding.

Between Jan. 1 and May 31, there were 2,399 inmate releases, 23.5 percent fewer than the same period last year, according to numbers released Tuesday by the Jackson County Sheriff's Office. Of those 2,399 releases, 49.3 percent were classified as forced releases because the jail had reached its 292-bed capacity, according to Jackson County Jail Commander Lt. Josh Aldrich.

“We’re one of the state leaders in forced releases, unfortunately,” Aldrich said. “I think that’s entirely due to the fact that we don’t have enough jail space.”

The numbers show that this year's 1,184 forced releases were 769 fewer than last year. Forced releases accounted for 62.2 percent of the 3,137 releases in 2017.

The last five-month period when the jail operated at is full 292-bed capacity was in 2015, when only 22.6 percent of the 1,872 releases were because of overcrowding.

Aldrich said this year's forced release percentage wasn't closer to 2015's numbers because the jail has seen close to a 20 percent increase in the number of inmates between 2015 and 2017.

The county inmate population rose to 14,404 last calendar year. In 2015, 12,047 inmates were lodged in the jail.

The number of jail bookings is rising across the state, according to Aldrich, who cited Oregon State Sheriff's Association reports. A message to the OSSA seeking to independently verify the figures wasn't immediately returned Tuesday.

Sheriff Nathan Sickler reopened the jail basement to inmate housing April 23, 2017, a year and a half after former sheriff Corey Falls closed the 62-bed basement because of staffing concerns. Jackson County Sheriff's Sgt. Julie Denney said another factor in the drop in releases this year is a jail program focused on targeting inmates who repeatedly fail to appear for court appearances.

"It's a pretty simple concept, really," Denney said.

The jail sets aside up to 10 beds for inmates in the program, according to Denney. The number of male or female chronic offenders plays a role in the list.

"We have far fewer female beds," Denney said.

Aldrich described Sickler as the "driving force" behind the "Chronic FTA" program, working with police and prosecutors to develop a list of chronic offenders. The program's "Top 50" list has buy-in from the courts, the District Attorney's office, Jackson County Community Justice and local police.

As of Tuesday afternoon, five inmates were lodged in the Chronic FTA program, according to Aldrich, who clarified that the beds don't sit unused until a warrant is served. Rather, a judge orders the inmate removed from the release eligibility list in what's commonly called a "no matrix" hold.

Aldrich said the program has made it simpler for the jail to connect the inmate with drug recovery and mental health counselors because they know the inmate won't be going anywhere.

"We've been able to plug them into the right programs," Aldrich said.

The program is focused on more than just that "one problematic person" that every local police agency has. Rather, police, courts and prosecutors are looking at the manpower the inmate is using.

"This is looking at the work caused by this person failing to appear," Aldrich said.

Reach reporter Nick Morgan at 541-776-4471 or Follow him on Twitter at @MTCrimeBeat.

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