Collaboration rethinks reliance on jails, looks for other options

Multnomah County has applied for a $1 million grant per year for up to 2 to 5 years from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to help it rethink its jail use. (KATU Photo)

The purpose of jail is to hold criminals awaiting trial who are a flight risk or pose a danger to public safety. Too often, though, they hold neither says Multnomah County's Local Public Safety Coordinating Council or LPSCC, (pronounced lip-sic).

LPSCC is a collaboration between more than two dozen law enforcement agencies, county departments and community organizations.

In partnership with the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the county is working with jurisdictions across the country to rethink the use of jails. LPSCC applied for additional funding through the Safety and Justice Challenge, as part of its goal to reduce reliance on jail.

Data shows that many in jail are there for nonviolent offenses, while many more are repeatedly arrested and jailed for low-level drug offenses and misdemeanors. A 2016 Multnomah County Corrections Grand Jury report indicates at least 40 percent of inmates have been diagnosed with a mental illness. A disproportionate number of those incarcerated are people of color.

LPSCC Executive Director Abbey Stamp says jail can become a revolving door of incarceration for people struggling with addiction and mental health challenges. This revolving door has enormous financial and social costs to those individuals, their families and the community -- particularly communities of color.

"The entire collaborative, from the [District Attorney's Office], to community corrections, the sheriff, everybody agrees for this group of individuals, the criminal justice system is not the right answer," Stamp told KATU. "What we want to do is help guide folks to a different outcome that is not the booking front door."

LPSCC identified 12 strategies to reduce overall jail use, reduce racial and ethnic disparities, and better respond to individuals with behavioral health problems.

In the last 18 years, jail size has been reduced by 42 percent. These strategies aim to continue to reduce jail use by an additional 14.5 percent.

Stamp says the programs are designed to divert people with mental health challenges away from jail, to increase community-based supervision by county parole and probation officers of lower-risk offenders, and more community-based alternatives for individuals arrested for drug use.

Many of these efforts are already underway.

If awarded, Stamp says the grant would be first used to help women.

"Specifically women of color," Stamp said. "[They] have been sanctioned to jail more frequently and for longer periods of time than their male counterparts whether on probation or supervision."

Stamp says there aren't great alternatives for women that are culturally or gender specific.

The women's program would be modeled similarly to the men's program, which already exists.

"That would allow for some sheltering of women who are struggling with mental health conditions," Stamp said. "Someday ... [programs could include] cognitive treatment for groups to facilitate a behavior change, a service [that] women direly need in our community."

Multnomah County Chair and Local Public Safety Coordinating Council Co-chair Deborah Kafoury says the county is committed to improving system inefficiencies, meet the needs of those with behavioral health problems who are involved in the justice systems, institute a range of non-jail options for lower-risk offenders, and most importantly, make the community safer by ensuring the right people are in jail to begin with.

"By providing the services and the treatment the people need to get back on track, they don't have to go to jail in the first place; they aren't committing crimes on the streets," Kafoury told KATU. "Some places just want to wash their hands of people when they are having trouble. We actually want to help people, so they don't continue to have those difficulties in their lives."

The MacArthur Foundation is pledging $100 million to agencies across the country to rethink jail use.

In 2015, 191 jurisdictions competed for funding through the Safety and Justice Challenge.

Twenty jurisdictions were selected, including Multnomah County. Eleven were gifted up to $2 million for 2 to 5 years.

Multnomah County did not make the cut, but received $150,000 in grants for planning.

Stamp says the Foundation is allowing the nine jurisdictions who did not receive large awards initially, to apply again for another grant -- $1 million per year for up 2 to 5 years. Multnomah County qualifies and applied.

Stamp says the county will know if it is selected in August.

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