Sheriff says funding for jailing, supervising Ore. felons is inadequate
County officials say the state's funding approach will continue to lead to budget shortfalls that limit staff and increase overcrowding
By Catalina Gaitán
PORTLAND, Ore. — Multnomah County Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell warned last week that the county may be forced to eliminate 219 jail beds, cut 43 full-time employees and start releasing inmates if the board of commissioners doesn’t cover a gap in state funding that’s affecting counties across Oregon.And the threat won’t go away, even if the board votes as expected on Thursday to approve her $6.3 million request, the sheriff said.
If the state doesn’t change its funding approach for community corrections – the term to describe the practice of jailing and supervising felons locally – officials said Multnomah County jails will continue facing significant budget shortfalls that could crowd facilities and further constrain staffing.
The financial challenges follow a slew of other problems confronting Multnomah County’s jails in recent months, including a spate of inmate deaths, staffing shortages that have halted bookings for hours at a time and the flow of deadly fentanyl behind bars.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran last week said it was clear Multnomah County was at a “breaking point.”
“We’re facing so many crises at that intersection of public safety, homelessness, behavioral health on a scale we have never seen,” she said. “Rather than disinvesting, we need to be going in the opposite direction.”
Since 1995, when Oregon lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1145, the state has distributed money to counties for two purposes under the bill: to jail felons who have sentences of a year or less and to supervise felons who are on probation or parole.
The state determines how much to send to Oregon’s 36 counties through a cost study it completes every six years — and then allocates the money based on the number of felons each county supervises or jails.
But Multnomah County leaders said state legislators have not funded counties at the level determined by the case study.
The most recent study from 2018 showed the state’s $273 million community corrections budget for all counties in the 2017-2019 biennium was $50 million less than what it was actually costing Oregon’s counties, said Jeston Black, Multnomah County’s director of government relations.
Multnomah County leaders advocated for the state to close the budget gap in 2019, but state legislators did not, Black said. In 2021, the state provided an additional $30 million to all counties – still $20 million shy of the 2018 cost estimate.
State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth, said state legislators haven’t matched funding to the case study because the number of felons in community corrections statewide has plummeted since the study was completed five years ago. Evans is co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means subcommittee on public safety that reviews the community corrections budget.
“If we need to adjust, I’m more than happy to – but I need actual evidence now, not political theater,” Evans said.
Multnomah County has 40% fewer felons under supervision than five years ago – 3,506 in 2023 compared with 5,641 people in 2017, state records show. That’s largely due to reduced jail populations during the COVID-19 pandemic and Measure 110, which decriminalized possession of small amounts of street drugs, according to Jeremiah Stromberg, assistant director of the Oregon Department of Corrections’ Community Corrections division.
The decline in state funding has been less sharp, dropping by 25% since 2017.
For 2023-2025, that translated to $40.5 million for Multnomah County’s community corrections budget – almost $10 million less than in the previous biennium, state records show.
County officials argue it’s not enough. The state’s formula doesn’t account for steep increases in the costs of providing services to people with higher levels of mental health issues, addiction, homelessness and susceptibility to gun violence, they said.
“They fundamentally made a decision that said we are not going to fund this gap between what the cost study says the services cost and what we are funding,” said Black. “We’re still chronically underfunded.”
But state legislators tasked with crafting those budgets said they provided what was required by the state’s budget formula, and provided extra money to Multnomah County on top of it.
“I have to respectfully disagree with the sheriff and the county that the current jail bed crisis and issue in Multnomah County is being driven by this budget,” Stromberg said.
Stromberg said he calculates each county’s allocation every two years, accounting for inflation, rising costs and projected increases in the felon population.
The county’s state funding is “more than adequate” to pay for community corrections through the end of the upcoming biennium, even as costs and jail populations are projected to increase, Stromberg said.
Without more funding, Morrisey O’Donnell said the sheriff’s office may be forced to eliminate 219 out of 1,130 jail beds — about one fifth. The sheriff’s office and the county’s community justice department may also have to cut 43 full-time employees, including counselors and community-justice managers, who help people address underlying issues that can lead to criminal behavior.
And with a drop in jail capacity, the jail may be forced to release 20 to 60 people at a time – including those charged with third-degree rape, third-degree sex abuse and attempted assault.
To avoid the cuts, Morrisey O’Donnell and eight other local officials asked county commissioners last week to allocate $6.3 million from the county’s contingency fund to the sheriff’s office and the county’s community justice department. The money would be a short-term fix, as it would run out by the end of 2024, leaving the county without funding for the rest of the state’s budget biennium, county officials said.
The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners meets at 9:30 a.m. Thursday to cast their votes.
State legislators could provide more dollars to counties during the February legislative short session, and if the next cost study – slated for 2024 – shows a drastic increase in the felon population, state legislators can also use that data to push for more community corrections funding statewide.
And outside of legislative sessions, the state’s emergency board – a panel of state legislators tasked with allocating emergency funding – can authorize providing more money to counties if they need it, said Sen. Janeen Sollman, D-Hillsboro, co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means subcommittee on public safety.
The state’s budget formula for community corrections can also be revised, especially to accommodate regional differences in the costs for different services, programs and employees, Sollman said.
“If you’re looking at how much it costs for corrections officers in Multnomah County, that’s going to be different than in Sherman County,” Sollman said. “The cookie can’t be cut all the same.”
Jay Scroggin, director for Multnomah County’s Department of Community Justice Adult Services Division, said he didn’t agree that the county was receiving enough funding. But he and fellow county leaders said they hope a change to the state’s budget formula can help keep Multnomah County from a financial shortfall.
“We are always open, and have been for the last two [legislative] sessions about continuing conversations – real conversations – about looking at a new formula, looking at a new funding model,” Scroggin said.
— Catalina Gaitán, firstname.lastname@example.org, @catalinagaitan_
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