Oregon county releases inmates amid budget cuts

May 31, 2012 - 10:56 AM
Timber County-Sheriffs Cuts

Inmates smile at their new freedom Wednesday, May 30, 2012, after being released from the jail in Grants Pass, Ore., due to layoffs of guards forced by the failure of a tax increase. The Josephine County Sheriff’s Office released 39 inmates, dropping the population at the jail to 60 _ half of them federal prisoners held on contract. About half will finish their sentences on work crews, while the rest were waiting for trial. The most common charges were for drug crimes, minor assaults, burglary, identity theft and probation violations. (AP Photo/Jeff Barnard)

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Dozens of inmates ran whooping from a small town jail into the sunshine Wednesday after a cash-strapped county in Oregon's timber region was forced to release them amid budget cuts.

The sheriff's office released 39 inmates, dropping the population at the jail in Grants Pass to 60 — half of them federal prisoners held on contract.

"We had no other alternative based on our funding predicament," said Josephine County Undersheriff Don Fasching. "We are very concerned for public safety."

About half of those released will finish their sentences on work crews. The rest were waiting for trial.

The most common charges were for drug crimes, minor assaults, burglary, identity theft and probation violations.

"We did keep the worst of the worst" — those facing charges for crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences — said Jail Commander Vicki Smith.

Among the inmates released was one incarcerated for failing to register as a sex offender, and another accused of agreeing to sex for money with a 14-year-old girl offered by her boyfriend online.

The sheriff's office was forced to cut staffing to levels not seen since 1991 after voters emphatically turned down a $12 million levy to plug a gap left by the expiration of federal timber subsidies. Since then, applications for concealed weapons permits have skyrocketed, many taken by people concerned that the sheriff's cuts will lead to a rise in crime.

Tammy Behrle, who lives alone in the woods and has no computer to check the sheriff's office website for information on the inmates being released, showed up to take photos of them so she would know who to look out for on the street.

"I put a gun on layaway — a .38 Special — and I'll get a permit when I get the training," she said. "This thing can go any which way but loose."

Angelina Banachowicz arrived at the jail to pick up her boyfriend, a probation violator awaiting trial on a minor assault, after her daughter heard about the releases on TV.

"He's still going to do his time," she said. "But we're excited he'll be with his kids and his family."

The lower staffing levels mean that only 10 jail beds will be available for someone arrested for a crime, forcing police to cite and release most people, Fasching said. The more serious offenders already occupied 20 beds.

Among those released was William Nathan Smith, a 45-year-old man from San Jose, Calif., who served 30 days of a 50-day sentence for drugs, assault, and being a felon in possession of a firearm. He sat on a curb with his shirt off, smoking his first cigarette in weeks, TV cameras in his face.

He said inmates have been excited for days, wondering if they would be among those released.

"They're feeling like they're getting a break for once," Smith said. "It's not like they're beating the system."

In 1991, the county saw a sharp drop in its share of federal timber revenues due to logging cutbacks on national forests to protect the northern spotted owl and salmon, resulting in similar cuts. Subsidies in place of the payments were enacted by Congress in 2000 expired last year.

Sheriff's patrols, the district attorney's office, parole and probation supervision, and juvenile justice all face deep cuts in coming weeks as Josephine County seeks to balance its budget. Lane County is facing similar cuts.