Little more than a year ago, Morrow County Sheriff's deputies often felt stymied and frustrated. The suspected lawbreakers they collared often were out on the streets before officers could write up a description of the crime.

Now, things have changed.

Morrow County is jailing more offenders and collecting more fines than it did before - all because it pays for 11 reservations each day at the most secure hotel in town - the Umatilla County Jail.

The approximately $213,000 price tag for contract beds at the jail is money well spent, according to Morrow County Sheriff Ken Matlack.

"It's put a different face on getting into trouble," he said.

Morrow County doesn't have its own jail and like most local law enforcement agencies, sends those arrested to the Umatilla County Jail. Funding problems at the jail, however, limit staffing and mean criminals - or those suspected of crimes - sometimes are released within a short time of their arrests.

"We have a jail with 252 beds and are budgeted for 135," said Umatilla County Sheriff John Trumbo.

Sometimes, it gets even worse.

This week, local law enforcement agencies received a letter from Trumbo saying the jail temporarily must limit inmates in the jail to 100 - a number that includes the beds contracted by Morrow County and other agencies. The reason is a six-week murder trial starting June 18 will tie up staff members each day as they transport the defendants and provide security for the trial.

"It's unfortunate that we need to take these drastic steps," Trumbo said, "but at this point, without adequate staff and the financial resources to house inmates, I have no other option."

The cap means that, except for contract beds, the jail will restrict lodging to felony person crimes such as murder and rape, domestic violence and warrant arrests only.

These kinds of limitations translate into frustration for officers, Matlack said. The jail, it seems, has a revolving door.

"You haven't even finished your police report and the subject is already back home," Matlack said.

Paying for contract beds is one way to insure officers have a place to put the suspects they arrest.

Morrow County isn't the only law enforcement agency that pays up front to reserve jail beds. Pendleton and Hermiston Police Departments each have one. Wallowa County reserves eight. The tribal police department pays for four.

These agencies can lodge offenders at their discretion, at least until they go above the number of contract beds they have reserved. After that, law enforcement agencies are at the mercy of "the matrix system."

Each offender is given a matrix score based on their criminal history and the crime he or she is accused of committing. The higher the score, the more likelihood the person will stay in jail.

"Roughly speaking, we keep the most dangerous people," said Bob Hensel, jail administrator. "And Measure 11 crimes are out of the matrix."

The less-threatening lawbreakers sometimes are "matrixed out."

"The most serious offenders will stay until the jail is full," Matlack said. "Then the best of the bad will go home."

That means people who drive drunk, get caught with a drug, don't pay a fine or fail to appear in court, likely don't have to spend time in jail.

The 11 contract beds give Morrow County more flexibility to deal with "the lesser crimes," such as failure to pay fines.

"For the first time, they're looking at spending time in jail until they pay their fines," Matlack said. "They call mother, father, brother or best friend to come up with the money."

In the first six months after upping its number of beds to 11 more than a year ago, Morrow County collected $60,000 in fines - a substantial boost.

The sheriff said dealing drugs and committing other crimes in his jurisdiction now is riskier business.

"The revolving door in Morrow County has closed shut," Matlack said. "The officers are comfortable knowing, if a guy is arrested, he won't get matrixed out."

Other law enforcement agencies may not have the same comfort level.

Hermiston Police Chief Dan Coulombe is worried about public safety after receiving Trumbo's letter this week. The inability to incarcerate translates into a system with no teeth, he said.

"It's way beyond frustration," he said.

Trumbo said pain felt by people such as Coulombe is his pain, too.

"It's frustrating for everyone - I just pull my hair out," he said. "The jail staff, the patrol guys - we're all frustrated."

Morrow County, on the other hand, still enjoys some freedom. As a result, more than one person who drove drunk or ignored a fine has ended up in the slammer.

"We look at each case individually and take them as they come," Matlack said.

He believes the county's ability to jail more lawbreakers has chased a few of them out of the county.

"Umatilla County probably has a few of our Morrow County customers," he said.

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