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Corrections Officer Sharon Edmondson monitors activity in the Union County Jail on Thursday. Jail officials said that public safety is always the top concern and that they work closely with parole and probation, judges and Wallowa County, which contracts with Union County for eight beds in the facility, to make good decisions on who to release when the jail is full. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
“The Matrix” may be nothing more than a sci-fi movie to many La Grande residents.
At the Union County Jail, the matrix system is an integral player in dealing with overcrowding at the 37-bed facility.
The matrix system, overhauled by the county about five years ago, is a sort of formula used to classify offenders by danger level in order to make sound judgement calls on releases when the jail is full.
“It’s a rank order list of who the most dangerous offenders are and conversely who the safest offenders are,” said Capt. Craig Ward of the Union County Sheriff’s Office.
The matrix release worksheet used to determine an offender’s matrix score looks at various factors, including employment status, residence status and criminal history.
Ward said one of the biggest factors is previous offenses: how many, what kind and how long ago.
Scores are variable, but typically range from about 40 to as high as into the 900s.
Ward said once scores reach the high 100s and into the 200s, those levels are not ideal for release.
‘Best of the worst’
As the jail maintains full capacity nearly all the time, matrix release numbers have skyrocketed. According to numbers from the Union County Sheriff’s Office, in 2009, only 73 inmates were let out on a matrix release agreement. By 2011, that number had increased to 256. The jail matrix released 244 inmates last year and is on pace to release 199 by the end of 2013.
With beds full, officials at the jail often face tough decisions about who to keep and who to release.
“It’s not a good thing when we have to decide who’s the best of the worst,” Ward said. “We are at capacity more often than not.”
Jail Commander Lori Lucas said that public safety is always the top concern and that her staff works closely with parole and probation, judges and Wallowa County, which contracts with Union County for eight beds in the facility, to make good decisions.
“All of the entities realize the pinch we’re in,” Lucas said. “A lot of times when you have three or four heads working on an idea it’s better than one person.”
Sometimes it is determined that an inmate can be released to a work crew. At other times, inmates with matrix scores on the higher end are released, creating an obvious concern for law enforcement officials.
“Eventually we are going to release someone and they’re going to go out and re-offend and hurt someone,” Ward said.
Some inmates are not allowed to be let out on matrix release agreements. Some of these offenders include those who fall under Measure 11 sentencing guidelines, inmates who were extradited in, those booked on parole and probation detainers and people who are intoxicated or high, Lucas said.
Because of these restrictions, the Union County Jail may at times have “non-matrixable” offenders with low matrix scores, even in the double digits, while those who are eligible for matrix releases have 400 points, Ward said.
Still, the jail — along with other consulting agencies like the district attorney’s office, parole and probation and judges — can put a “no matrix” label on inmates they do not think are safe for release, Lucas said.
“It’s more than numbers,” she said. “If they’ve been matrixed over and over, we can decide to not matrix them.”
Lucas said a large percentage of the jail population cycles in and out — and has for years.
Some of those regulars already know the system and come into booking wanting to know their matrix score, Ward said. That sort of behavior has resulted in a change of policy for the jail.
“We have a policy now when an inmate asks how full we are, we don’t tell them,” Lucas said. The inmates are not told their individual scores, either.
Union County Sheriff Boyd Rasmussen said, for the time being, his office has worked with the county commissioners to get funding to send overflow inmates to Umatilla, Baker City or another location.
“The sheriff’s office has worked closely with the commission to maximize our outdated facility to its highest efficiency as well as to add funding to house inmates in other facilities and we greatly appreciate that,” Rasmussen said.
The commission allocated just $11,183 for overflow in 2009-10, but by 2012-13, that funding was up to $50,000, according to numbers provided by the sheriff’s office.
The jail has also undergone various renovations in the past five years to maximize space.
“We’ve done everything to maximize every square foot that we have back there,” Rasmussen said.
Ultimately, Rasmussen, Lucas and Ward agreed that more beds and, eventually, a new jail is needed, though they do not see that happening in the near future.
Rasmussen said he is working to get the community involved in finding a solution to the jail bed problem.
“As sheriff, I feel it is important for community members to understand the challenges facing this county in the coming years with respect to jail capacity issues,” he said.
Rasmussen envisions creating a committee of community members and involving key players like the district attorney’s office, parole and probation and judges to look for creative solutions.
“It’s tough,” he said of the options, all of which require one thing — money.
The jail could close and the county could transport all inmates to other jails. Another option is to expand the existing jail, though, there is not much room for growth. Or the county could move to build a new jail, an expensive and long process.
For now, jail officials will make do with what is provided.
“Citizen safety is the sheriff’s office’s top priority and we will continue work closely with the commission, law enforcement partners and community alike to ensure this county remains livable and safe,” Rasmussen said.