Crime has surged in Portland, Ore., but its new lockup sits empty
Tomas Alex Tizon, Times Staff Writer
PORTLAND, Ore.- It might be one of the prettiest jails ever built.
A long driveway circles past a modern-art sculpture on the front lawn. The main building appears like a manor, with pink stucco and glass tile on the outside. The interior motif leans heavily toward pastels. Vaulted ceilings and open-air corridors suggest the design principles of \o7f\f7\o7eng shui.
\f7The Wapato Facility, in the city's northern outskirts, took $59 million and two years to construct. But in the nearly two years since its completion -- as Portland has struggled with a crime surge -- not a single inmate has set foot in the building.
Multnomah County, in charge of Portland jails, can't afford to open it.
"We held a ceremony, cut the ribbon -- then locked the doors," says Sheriff Bernie Giusto, who attended the dedication in the summer of 2004. "We have a brand-new jail sitting here empty, and I don't have a good answer when the public asks me, 'Why was it built if there was no plan to operate it?'
"Even I get tired of telling people how dumb we are."
Today, the jail is a symbol of Oregon's continuing financial troubles in the midst of an improving economy. As the state and its counties prepare for another round of budget cuts this year, Wapato has come to represent different shades of failure to different people.
Activists cite it as an example of government incompetence. "Remember Wapato!" has become a rallying cry for citizen groups bracing for new tax increases. Gov. Ted Kulongoski would like to raise the cigarette tax to pay for school programs. Portland Mayor Tom Potter has suggested a temporary personal income tax to make up for an expiring levy in Multnomah County.
Economists and politicians say Wapato reveals the instability inherent in Oregon's tax system, which makes local governments vulnerable to economic plunges.
Giusto just wants to put bad guys in his jail. For the sheriff, whose name adorns the front entrance, Wapato is a mocking reminder of what crime-fighting in the Portland area could be -- but isn't. For the last five years, an acute shortage of jail beds has forced police in the region -- Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties -- to systematically release inmates early to make room for new ones.
Multnomah County last year released a record 5,000 criminals: drug dealers, burglars, car prowlers and assorted con men, many of them drug addicts or mentally ill. Police say the situation has fueled an explosion in property crimes and has increasingly meant the release of dangerous criminals.
On Jan. 20, a man with a history of violence, Richard P. Koehrsen, 45, was arrested for trespassing and drinking in public. Because the county detention center was full, jailers released him and 14 other inmates the next day.
Two days after he was set free, Koehrsen was arrested again, this time accused of fatally stabbing a man in the neck downtown in front of Jake's Famous Crawfish. Witnesses said Koehrsen had gotten into a fight with Christopher Darryl John Carter, 42, a laborer and lifelong Portland resident.
The killing renewed public demands for more jail space. A member of a local crime commission, Louise Grant, called the incident appalling, and the head of a public safety committee, Howard Weiner, said it was time for the region to wake up to the problem.
The sheriff gritted his teeth.
"I love coming to an empty $59-million jail."
Giusto (pronounced JOOS-toe) can barely conceal his frustration. He is 55, a lifelong Oregonian, a career lawman and currently the disgruntled sheriff of the state's most populous county. He is conducting one of his occasional tours through Wapato in his campaign to swing wide its doors.
He talks of getting his staff to create a virtual tour of the jail so Oregonians on the Internet can see it for themselves. The tour would include an explanation to the vexing question of how Wapato came to be in the first place.
In sum: The jail was conceived during good times and finished during bad.
At the height of the boom years in the mid-1990s, Oregon taxpayers approved a levy to build the jail with the idea that rising property taxes -- the chief source of revenue for local governments in Oregon -- would generate money to operate it.
In 2000, a recession, along with two tax initiatives that imposed sharp limits on property taxes, caused the economy to plummet. Unemployment surged to 8.5%, the highest in the nation. Schools cut class lengths, social agencies dropped programs, and police sliced personnel -- in particular, corrections officers.
Fortunes changed about a year ago.
Revenue and job-creation figures show the state economy on a steady upswing. The unemployment rate dropped to 5.4% in January, the fourth straight month below 6%, a figure that economists associate with better times.
State Economist Tom Potiowsky recently characterized Oregon's economy as robust.
Nevertheless, the state and many counties may not have the money to maintain some government services at current levels. Multnomah County expects to be in the hole at least $32 million.
Potiowsky says it takes several years for local budgets to reflect swings in the economy. But the main reason for the shortages is Oregon's one-of-a-kind "kicker" law that requires amounts above projections to be kicked back to taxpayers. An estimated $666 million will be refunded to Oregon taxpayers and businesses next year. Multnomah County also faces the loss of revenue from a three-year county income tax -- used to prop up ailing school districts -- due to expire this year. This makes it certain that competition for county funds will be fierce.
None of this bodes well for Wapato, which could hold 525 inmates at a cost of about $20 million a year. Giusto would be happy to use just a part of the jail -- 150 beds at a cost of $6 million, a tiny fraction of the county's $1.2-billion budget.
"It would be a foot in the door," he says.
His voice echoes in the empty corridors.
No one publicly opposes opening Wapato, but politicians choosing between funding classrooms or jail cells have, in recent years, favored schools. Social programs, such as drug rehabilitation, also get priority.
In the backdrop lurks the notion expressed by Maggie Miller, director of the Citizens Crime Commission of Portland: "If a sheriff has a million beds, he'll fill a million beds." More jails don't solve the crime problem.
True, says Giusto. But what if the jail is already built?
Giusto's tone carries the lament of "what a waste."
The sheriff's eyes wander covetously over dozens of never-used metal bunks arranged in neat rows and separated into spacious 75-bed dormitories. Flat-screen televisions adorn the walls in each dorm, where the ceiling soars 30 feet high. The county spent more than $600,000 on art for the jail, including the sculpture -- meant to evoke river pilings -- out front.
"The public has this image of inmates rattling tin cups on bars," Giusto says. "Take a look around. There aren't gun ports on the ceilings. Look at the colors. Private showers. If I didn't tell you this was a jail, you'd never know. Right?"
It's another long night for Lt. Rachel Getman, commander of the evening shift (3:30 to 11:30 p.m.) at the Multnomah County Justice Center in downtown Portland. The center is one of three jails run by Giusto's department.
One of Getman's main duties is "balancing beds," tracking the number of inmates that exceed the system's capacity of about 1,690 beds. "It's a numbers game," she says, sitting in front of a bank of computer screens. "It's brutal."
The department uses a formula that assigns inmates a score of 1 to 100 based on criminal history and propensity for violence. The lower the score, the greater the chances of an early release.
The overcrowding has meant the release of inmates with increasingly high scores. Getman says the department has released an inmate who scored 80. "I start worrying when we get into the 60s," she says. "The 80 made me very nervous."
On a recent night, the department let three dozen inmates out early. They were brought together and released in a horde into a single lobby. "We opened the door," Getman recalls, "and they were laughing and joking and they were right back out on the street, back to the same party they left."
A couple even flashed a "see-you-tomorrow" kind of grin.
Most were young men like Joseph L. Craddock, who spent two days in jail for theft; Charles E. Bernbeck, two days for malicious harassment; Jerry Ray Gonzalez, one day for carrying a concealed weapon. The Sheriff's Department maintains a website (www.inmatereleases.org) of early-release inmates with mug shots, criminal records and home addresses.
The revolving door is the chief reason that Portland's rate of property crimes -- burglaries, car and identity thefts, vandalism -- has risen to double the national rate in recent years, police officials say.
Getman and other backers of Wapato say the early-release problem undermines the criminal justice system in Portland. Police wonder whether it's worth the bother to arrest someone who'll be back on the street before the next shift. Prosecutors, keenly aware of the space shortage, have resorted to recommending shorter sentences. Judges too have been affected.
"I've become a liar," says Steven Maurer, the presiding Circuit Court judge in Clackamas County, which last year released nearly 5,000 inmates early. Maurer says he is deeply disturbed that a criminal he sentences to six months in jail could be let go in a matter of hours.
The region's three counties are discussing the possibility of sharing the jail and, most important, sharing the cost.
"Crisis is not too strong a word to describe the problem," Maurer says. "That's exactly what we have here."
Not even the top lawman in the region is immune.
One workday not too long ago, Giusto returned to the detention center's parking lot to find his car windows caved in. A gym bag had been taken in broad daylight -- in front of surveillance cameras and right under a sign that read "Multnomah County Sheriff." Giusto recalls inspecting the damage and scanning the lot for clues.
He had no words.
Out of habit and helplessness, the sheriff bit down and gritted his teeth.
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