SALEM — For the last two decades, Oregon has rethought how it uses prisons.
Rather than focusing on building more facilities to handle an ever-growing number of inmates, the state pays counties to jail, supervise and treat an array of offenders in their own communities.
The result, according to officials, is reduced recidivism among many offenders at a fraction of the cost of imprisoning them. But some Oregon counties now complain the state is failing to live up to its end of the bargain, and they warn of dire consequences to come.
“That was always the commitment,” said Dale Primmer, director of community corrections in Umatilla County. “That counties would deliver the services with the belief that a local control model would better meet the needs of the uniqueness of each community, and the state would fund it at its defined current service level.”
That is, the state would adjust the funding to cover the cost of the services.
“Quite frankly,” Primmer said, “they have not done that.”
In the last week, politicians and justice officials in the state’s most populous counties have bitterly criticized what they said was a glaring oversight in the two-year budget lawmakers passed earlier this year.
On top of an overall reduction in funds flowing out to counties for community corrections programs, lawmakers disregarded a new study finding those services are far more costly than previously thought.
Umatilla County commissioners Wednesday approved Primmer’s two-year budget plan of a little more than $6.1 million, $113,000 less than the previous biennium.
“While on its face that doesn’t appear to be a large sum of money,” Primmer told the board, “but where you add in the increases in personnel contracts and materials and services, it works out to about half-a-million dollar reduction for me.”
To bridge that gap, Umatilla County Community Justice will forego filling two vacancies — a probation officer vacancy and a probation officer aide who would have provided cognitive treatment to offenders. The department also cut the job of a person who assessed inmates as they transitioned out of the county jail.
“I will be having conversations with our community partners to try to backfill some of that service,” he said.
In Multnomah County, commissioners grappling with a more than $5 million reduction in state funds voted Thursday to ax a program that offered substance abuse treatment, job training and other services to criminal offenders with an eye toward reducing the likelihood they’ll commit another crime. Nineteen positions were eliminated in all, and officials spent more than $900,000 in emergency funds to avoid immediately closing a 73-bed jail dorm.
In Clackamas County, the sheriff’s office is warning of the possible closure next year of a program that serves hundreds of newly released prisoners a month, offering therapy, housing assistance, GED courses and more. Washington County leaders plan to close a 36-bed treatment program, fire three counselors and reduce money to help supervised offenders pay for housing. Marion County will eliminate a drug treatment program and won’t fill more than seven vacant positions.
Primmer said the work of community corrections throughout Oregon has meant the state did not have to build a new prison in Junction City. Without adequate funding, county officials argue, they will be increasingly helpless to pursue the goals their community corrections programs are designed to achieve: lower rates of reoffending and a safer community overall.
The issue promises to command attention in next year’s legislative session, when officials said they’ll demand millions of dollars to keep their programs afloat. If they don’t get it, they warn of increased prison usage, higher crime and more.
“It is completely devastating,” Clackamas County Sheriff Craig Roberts said. “You’re going to see a lot of doors come open and an increase in this homeless population that is already out of control.”
Primmer said a key Umatilla County program hangs in the balance of the February session.
Community Justice and the sheriff’s office partnered up in 2016 to establish a detective who tracks down and arrests offenders who have absconded. Primmer said before the program, about 57% of the population his department issued warrants for came back with a new criminal charge. The most recent data, he said, showed that number was in the low 20s.
The total number of absconders and their subsequent arrests did not decrease, but the amount of crimes absconders committed did go down. That makes sense, he said, because having someone find absconders helps cuts down on escalating criminal behavior.
The funding issue has roots in two basic facets of Department of Corrections budgeting.
First, under an arrangement struck in 1995, most counties are awarded state funds in proportion to the percentage of felons (and certain misdemeanor offenders) they supervise statewide. State officials believe such cost-sharing is a great deal for taxpayers.
“Research shows this combined approach is consistent with evidence-based practices and significantly more cost-effective than relying on jails or prisons alone as a response to criminal behavior,” according to a recent report from the Oregon Department of Corrections.
But larger counties have seen their percentage of statewide money decrease in recent years as their share of overall inmates has shrunk. Multnomah County, for instance, used to claim more than 20% of state funds, but this year the county received roughly 18% of state funding.
At the same time, lawmakers spent less money on community corrections this year than in the last budget — $268 million versus $273 million in 2017-19. That’s because of an overall reduction in the number of people being supervised, a change that has roots in factors including less strict drug laws and charging decisions by prosecutors.
In Multnomah County, the reduction translated into $5.4 million less than the county received in the previous two-year budget. Clackamas and Washington counties also saw reductions of $1.36 million and $1.2 million, respectively.
That’s how the system is supposed to work, said Jeremiah Stromberg, assistant director of community corrections at the Oregon Department of Corrections.
“Overall, the supervised population went from a high of 36,000 offenders to just above 30,000 today,” he said. “As the criminal justice footprint becomes smaller, the funding formula is designed to follow suit.”
To that point, counties raise another objection: The state’s own data shows they’re being paid far too little.
Under state law, the Department of Corrections is required to produce a study every six years to determine how much it actually costs counties to provide community corrections services. The latest study, conducted in 2018, concluded the state was underpaying nearly $51 million every two years for those services statewide.
County officials said they were confident lawmakers would make up the difference — some even budgeted with an eye toward at least part of the funding.
“There was an expectation that they might not fund all of it but they were going to fund some of it,” said Jeston Black, government relations director for Multnomah County. “Leading up 24, 48 hours before the subcommittee voted on the budget, we were all being told things are going to be fine.”
Instead, the DOC budget passed without any of the money being allocated. Many people attribute that to an event that roiled the Legislature this session: the illness and May 29 death of longtime state Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem.
Winters co-chaired the subcommittee that crafts the state’s corrections budget and had carved out a reputation as an advocate for community corrections programs. But the senator was absent for a large part of the session as she received cancer treatment, and she was unable to shepherd through the budget as she normally would have.
“I believe Jackie Winters was taking this thing forward and things were moving in a positive direction and we were all calm, comfortable seeing that we would get the funding,” said Roberts, the Clackamas County sheriff. “Sadly, she passed away.”
Rep. Carla Piluso, a Democrat and former Gresham police chief who co-chaired the budget subcommittee with Winters, noted in a statement to OPB that data “showed a decline in the community corrections population and projected that it would continue declining.” She did not address the study indicating that the state was underpaying for services.
Some lawmakers, however, did take notice. When the DOC budget passed out of the Legislature’s main budget committee, Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, refused to support it.
“It’s underfunded,” said McLane, now a circuit court judge. “The community corrections funding is shockingly reduced. When I look at some of the other things we’re doing here … I just don’t know why we would allocate money at those priorities and underfund this.”
His comments spurred a retort from Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, one of the committee’s chairs, who said lobbyists had “misconstrued” the matter.
“They will say there is a $50 million reduction, which is patently false and inaccurate,” Rayfield said. He contended the money in the budget was adequate to pay for current service levels.
Primmer does not see it that way. He told county commissioners the state’s last fully funded cost study was in 2006.
“I would argue this is not a lack of information,” he said. “This was a choice they made.”
His choice comes down to stretching every available dollar to continue the work of supervising local offenders.
“Just because the funds aren’t there,” Primmer said, “doesn’t mean I have fewer people to supervise in the county.”
For its part, Gov. Kate Brown’s office sounded a skeptical note about the decision not to fund counties at an amount the state acknowledges is correct.
Brown did not include any of the money in a proposed budget she released last year. And Kate Kondayen, a spokeswoman for Brown, said the governor was considering asking a third party to review the study that said the state is underpaying for community corrections by tens of millions of dollars.
Brown’s office had previously issued a statement calling for “more transparency” in the money that counties spend and insisting corrections programs “be evidence-based and require measurement of outcomes.” Kondayen, however, did not provide examples of areas where dollars weren’t being spent transparently, or there wasn’t adequate evidence for outcomes.
As with almost any program or priority that doesn’t receive requested budget funds, it’s not hard to find examples of people who could be impacted by cuts.
Corey Fuselier, 29, started using hard drugs in high school and in 2013 landed in an inpatient substance abuse program run by the Clackamas County Sheriff’s Office. Fuselier said the program helped him identify the habits and tendencies that had led him to abuse heroin.
“Coming here kind of opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not the drugs,” he said. “It’s the way that I think. And it’s based around self-worth stuff and growing up not feeling like I belonged.”
Fuselier graduated from the program, but again lapsed into drug use, racking up charges in Multnomah County for property crime, robbery and assault. Prison seemed a distinct possibility. Instead, he was accepted back into the Clackamas County treatment program, which Roberts said could lose staff and resources as a result of state budgeting.
Today Fuselier is on the verge of completing the program once again, and he believes he is on the path to recovery.
“I owe my life to this place,” Fuselier said. “I was hurting a lot of people, and most of all I was hurting myself, and if I hadn’t been given the chance to come here and also come back here I don’t know where I would be today.”
East Oregonian reporter Phil Wright contributed to this report.