Multnomah County Commissioners are preparing to formalize a policy change Thursday that would direct jail staff to release some low-level offenders.

The Sheriff's department would determine that the detainees pose no threat to public safety, though they are wanted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

The detainees in question are held because Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE chose them for what are called I-247 detainers.

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen explains, "People who've been arrested locally, spent time in our jail, and the local jail time is over. But the federal government asks us to keep holding onto them anyway."

April Baer / Oregon Public Broadcasting

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen says the new ICE hold policy will not completely heal the jail budget, but is a step toward better financial management of jail resources.

In theory, ICE would continue to investigate the detainees for immigration violations. But in practice, Multnomah County statistics show that over an eleven month period, ICE failed to act on over six hundred detainees' cases.

While the county can get a limited subsidy for housing the inmates, the county says taxpayers still picked up part of the bill.

February 2012 figures show the number of beds reserved for ICE holds was almost identical to the number of offenders released due to overcrowding. (Source: Multnomah County)

Cogen says Commissioners have come to believe that the low-level offenders in this group do not belong in the county jail. These suspects were charged with anything from offensive littering to disorderly conduct to giving false information to police.

He notes Multnomah County is so strapped for resources that suspects accused of worse crimes are regularly released because the jail is full - thanks in part to beds reserved for ICE's I-247 detainers.

"I think this is primarily an issue of justice, about doing the right thing, but it definitely has budget implications," Jeff Cogen.

Sheriff Dan Staton says the county has reached a phase of prison crowding that's made emergency releases necessary. Jail staff follow risk assessments, he says, to determine who gets released.

"We've gone kind of up the scale. It used to be low-level offenses, drinking in public, but now we're up to burglary charges, vehicle theft chages, minor assaults, prostitution, drug offenses."

Holding lower level offenders on behalf of ICE, Staton says, while releasing the more serious offenders, he says, does not serve the public.

The detentions started under the Secure Communities program. Starting in In 2008, ICE entered a closer relationship with many police agencies throughout the country. Those agencies all volunteered.

But Doris Marie Provine with Arizona State University's School of Justice and Social Inquiry, worked on a project that surveyed police chiefs and sheriffs around the country about how local forces handle immigration issues.

"They sense themselves to be quite on their own. they're not getting guidance much of the time from city governments and county supervisors. They themselves haven't developed their own internal policies.... fewer than 1/2 had a written or unwritten policy. A lot has to do with politics and the difficulty of figuring out what the policy should be."

In the case of Multnomah County, Sheriff Dan Staton says he's been trying for three years to get clarity interpreting a Secure Communities regulation that says a Sheriff, quoting here, "shall" honor 48-hour holds.

"The whole thing behind this is it's voluntary. This is not a law. The regulation clearly states that anybody's involvement in this at a local level is voluntary.

But he says ICE has not been able to explain exactly how that one word, "shall," obliges him.

Advocates with the immigrant rights, labor, and faith communities have been trying to get movement on this issue for several years. Marco Mejia with Portland Jobs for Justice says it's a good step forward. But Mejia would prefer that the county decline to honor any ICE holds.

"It sounds pretty easy, I know it's not, but we have a justice system that works, dealing with dangerous criminals. What we need to do is honor what we locally have."

Mejia points out even the Obama Administration has directed ICE to prioritize more dangerous offenders for deportation.

Sheriff Dan Staton says he knows of no other Oregon county that's had to take such measures. He says he wants the public to know, under the new policy, the only people who will be released will be those whose local charges have been fully processed in local courts. He says the jail will not release any offender until all local sentences have been served.

It's not clear if the policy change will complicate the County's relationship with ICE. A spokesman for ICE declined requests for an interview, saying it would be inappropriate to speculate on the impact of a draft policy.

Jim Bueermann is President of the Police Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based non-profit that researches law enforcement issues.

"It is important for all American police agencies to cooperate with each other. The agents that work for ICE are in the biz of enforcing federal laws... Sheriffs have a tough job, they have to constant balance the need to protect public safety. That may mean letting low grade violators go, so that there's room for much more serious offenders. And that's a judgment call."

Bueerman says he doesn't envy sheriffs' position, but he says it's only one of several ways local police and others have had to balance the relationship between local responsibilities and immigration law.

This story originally appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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