Budget cuts force Oregon jail to give prisoners get-out-of-jail-free cards

A $100 million budget deficit in Oregon's Lane County has prompted the sheriff to release nearly 100 detainees and inmates from his jail, including several accused of killing people. Ninety-two prisoners were freed over three days this month as the jail closed a whole wing of its 507-bed facility.

“It was horrifying,” says Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner. “All the effort to get those people into the jail is now gone, wasted.”

Among those released with only an electronic ankle bracelet was 33-year old Aaron Curry, who police say admitted he killed a man who had taken him in. He’s awaiting trial on a charge of second-degree manslaughter in the beating death of 46-year old Alan Platt. The victim’s relatives were stunned by Curry’s release. “We want justice,” says Platt’s sister, Alison Cavarra. “We want Aaron locked back up until trial like anybody else who has committed one of these crimes, or is accused of this crime.”

Lane County is filling less than a third of its jail beds following the elimination of 64 positions in the Sheriff’s Department. Twenty-eight deputies have been laid off, forcing the sheriff to also cut back on patrols. There are now 6-8 hours every day when citizens may call for help from a deputy, but there won’t be anyone on duty to respond.

So how did the county find itself in such a financial mess? Leaders blame a small tax base. “We simply don’t pay enough taxes to pay for enough of a service,” says Turner.

More On This...

Since the 1990s Lane County voters have been asked to approve a law enforcement levy 13 times. Every time the voters said no.

But there’s another reason why the tax base is low. Fifty-four percent of the land in Lane County belongs to the federal government, which pays no local taxes. The land is managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

For decades timber sales generated the majority of the county’s general fund, but that changed during the Clinton presidency. Eager to end the timber wars over the spotted owl, President Clinton came up with a plan that essentially pays rural timber counties to not log in the national forests.

Since 2001, 700 counties in 41 states have received SRS (Secure Rural Schools) payments. Nearly one-third of the money has been directed to the timber-rich state of Oregon. But those payments have been dwindling and, for the last several years, have been in jeopardy of not being renewed. Lane County used to get $50 million a year in timber payments. This year it will get $10 million.

“It’s a slap in our face,” says Lane County Commissioner Sid Leiken, “Washington D.C. has basically said, ‘Oregon, you’re not important, Lane County, you’re not important.’”

Leiken comes from a timber family and wants off the federal dole. Like most rural leaders, he would rather see the timber payments discontinued and the U.S. Forest Service resume timber sales in their counties.

“If we would just put the forest back to work,” says Leiken, “I just think about the employment that would happen, let alone the revenue that would come into Lane County.”

Meantime, dangerous criminals walk free because the county can’t afford to keep them locked up.