Report: Staffing, overcrowding, mental illness, problems in Multnomah County jails

(KATU Photo)

A corrections grand jury highlighted concerns related to mental illness, staffing and overcrowding in Multnomah County jails in an annual report card released Thursday.

In the past year the county was forced to release 212 inmates due to overcrowding, according to the report. Ideally, Multnomah County jails would run between 82 to 85 percent capacity. Right now, the jails consistently run at 90 percent capacity or more. The emergency releases happen when the jail reaches 95 percent capacity.

The county has also recently slashed the number of beds available for inmates. Sheriff Mike Reese said they went from 1,310 beds in 2016 to 1,192 beds currently.

"It has made it more challenging to provide safe housing to adults in custody, and it has ended up in forced releases in the last year," said Reese.

Jurors found the jails are also dealing with staffing shortages. There are currently 25 openings and more deputies are set to retire soon.

"The grand jurors report highlights the challenges of hiring professional staff at a time when the unemployment rate is so low, as well as the retirement wave we're facing in our public safety organizations," said Reese.

Jurors also found the county has spent more than $6.5 million to pay jail staff in overtime in 2018.

Jurors, however, commended the county’s pretrial and diversion programs as alternatives to jail. One of those programs, Close Street, is ranked as one of the best in the nation.

But they said more needs to be done.

The biggest problem, according the report, is mental health.

"The majority of inmates in the system increasingly have chronic mental health issues, medication needs, and/or substance abuse issues. All stakeholders agreed that jails are not the appropriate location for most of this population, and many should actually be in a clinical setting," the jurors wrote.

Mental health experts agree. Emily Cooper, legal director for Disability Rights Oregon, says there are two reasons mental illness is so prevalent in jails.

"The first, I think, is the stigma and bias perpetrated against people with mental illness," Cooper said.

She says the governments can't criminalize things like homelessness, loitering, and trespassing. It doesn't help.

Cooper says the second issue is a lack of community-based mental health support. She says people with mental health issues should be treated, not punished.

"Truly, every police officer I've ever met with, if there was a place where they could take these individuals where they can get treatment, they would do it. This isn't about bad people, this is about bad systems that aren't set up to help the most vulnerable," she said.

Read the report here.

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