Please Vote "No" for New Jails in Multnomah County

When Portland mass media unanimously refused to print or broadcast even one "opinion" piece or news article that would undercut public support for two measures in the May 21, 1996 election to raise $250 million in taxes for new jails in Multnomah County, the ensuing essay was posted on Usenet (or.politics, etc.) on May 14, 1996, by Portland NORML volunteer Phil Smith.
As a member of Portland NORML, I urge Multnomah County taxpayers to vote no May 21 to more than $250 million for new-jail bonds and a levy to (partly) operate those jails. Voting yes would accomplish none of the purported goals being put forth by the county, The Oregonian, Willamette Week or the mysterious ad hoc group, "Citizens for Libraries and Public Safety."

The criminal justice system in Multnomah County has abdicated its public safety role in order to focus on marijuana and other nonviolent, victimless illegal-drug offenders. Portland NORML in its weekly news releases has documented that more than 59 percent of all felons sentenced to jail or prison so far this year by Multnomah County courts are controlled-substance offenders. The majority of those felons are first-time violators. Meanwhile, reports from various media as well as Rep. Kevin Mannix indicate that car thieves or burglars currently are arrested an average of eight times before being sentenced to hard time. A story in the Sunday Oregonian Feb. 25 (posted in Portland NORML's web pages) reports that Portland police are solving just one in three violent crimes, one of the lowest rates in the nation. One recent felon who drove his car over somebody's head received just a month in jail. Uninsured drunk drivers are arrested as many as 11 times without going to jail. Thousands of cases of reported child abuse aren't even prosecuted because the county is focusing on illegal-drug offenders.

Please just say "no" to new jails and help send a firm message to the medieval social engineers currently in charge of Multnomah County's criminal-justice system that current policies must be re-evaluated. Voting "yes" will do nothing to improve public safety, reduce real crime or send more real criminals to jail.

The Oregonian and now Willamette Week have endorsed Multnomah County measures 26-42 and 26-45. Measure 26-45 would raise $79.7 from bonds to build 480 new jail beds and related hardware. Measure 26-42 involves a three-year levy for $89 million to operate county jails (though not enough for that purpose, by far). The Oregonian previously reported Feb. 29 that the bonds would be paid over 20 years ("Keep jail measure lean," p. B10), but now says 30 years. At that time The Oregonian said the total cost just for the $79.7 million jail-construction bonds would be $134 million with interest. How much is the total cost over 30 years? A conservative estimate for the total cost of both the bonds and levy would be $250 million.

Neither paper has printed even a "letter to the editor" in opposition to either measure. Neither paper reported the comments of people who testified in opposition to the measures during public hearings on them Feb. 26-27 and 29. Neither paper reported that not one person at those hearings spoke in favor of the measures.

Neither paper has publicized any evidence at all undercutting the measures, such as that presented in Portland NORML's March 7 and March 14 news releases, posted on the World Wide Web at and

Since both The Oregonian and Willamette Week have justified their endorsements with statistics purporting to show that too many prisoners are being released early from county jails, a re-examination of that evidence is in order.

As the March 7 Portland NORML news release reported:

"The Oregonian for one framed the issue as one sought by commissioners 'so jail inmates aren't released early because of crowding.' But in the 1995 'Annual Jail Data' published Jan. 24, 1996 by the Multnomah County Sheriff's Department Planning and Research Unit, on page matrix95.ch3, is a graph titled 'Population Releases 1995,' which shows that releases have declined drastically, from a peak of 536 per month in April 1995 pretty much in a straight trajectory down to 15 inmates in December 1995.... Of course, any dangerous inmates who are being released early go free because 60 percent of our criminal-justice resources seem to be going to incarcerate nonviolent drug offenders, while the system makes no pretense of jailing car thieves, burglars, drunken drivers and others who cause real harm to others. The police have been turned from crime fighters into armed morality cops, and the voters will gain little in terms of public safety if they pass new jail bonds and levies."

Portland NORML was curious as to why the Portland mass media ignored this new evidence from the sheriff's office itself, so it obtained from the district attorney's office a copy of the "1995 Report on the Conditions and Management of Correctional Facilities Within Multnomah County." To date that seems to be the only evidence (albeit unnamed) so far alluded to by The Oregonian and Willamette Week. It turns out the figures in the grand jury report on releases of prisoners due to overcrowding (p. MATRIX95) show the same plummeting trend found in the sheriff's January 1996 report, except all statistics conclude in September 1995, since the grand jury was impaneled on Oct. 2. Both reports show 536 inmates were released in April, 481 in May, 397 in June, 312 in July, 306 in August and 183 in September 1995. So even though the sheriff's January 1996 report shows that 109 prisoners were released in October, 141 in November and 15 in December 1995, it should have been apparent to the grand jury even back in October that Sheriff Noelle was doing just what he pledged to do in his campaign - which was to end "matrix" releases of prisoners due to overcrowding. Spending more than $250 million (including interest) to do what the sheriff already did administratively for less than $100,000 a year (or whatever his salary costs) seems unfair both to Sheriff Noelle and to taxpayers.

What neither newspaper has mentioned is that the grand jury report states repeatedly its assumption that Multnomah County is combating an escalating crime wave. For example, in Chapter IV, "Discussion of Recommendations," under section 2, "Growth in Population, Crime, Arrests and Jail Bookings," the grand jury reports that "The future picture of Multnomah County's correctional system is bleak... The number of crimes reported in this jurisdiction over the last five years has shown a steady annual increase. ... The number of juvenile and adult arrests continue [sic] to increase and show [sic] every indication of a trend which will continue" (p. 3).

However, the crime wave had already peaked as the grand jury met. Just recently, the Portland Police Bureau itself released statistics (reported by various media including KGW Northwest NewsChannel 8 and The Oregonian on April 18 and 17, respectively), indicating that the overall crime rate in the city of Portland fell sharply in the first three months of 1996, including an 8.2 percent drop in crimes against persons and a 13.4 percent drop in property crimes. The only categories of crime that are increasing, such as murder, are punished by lengthy terms in the state prison, so more county jail beds would have no impact, and the state already has thousands of new prison beds on the drawing boards (if not in the budget).

Now, here's the really telling part of the story, which shows how irrelevant matrix releases are: While overall crime was falling, releases of prisoners from Multnomah County jails due to overcrowding increased rapidly. Portland NORML, still curious about why the media weren't doing any research on a $250-plus million bond measure, made a telephone call on about March 21 to statistician Bill Wood, a very gracious and helpful expert in the sheriff's research and statistics department. While agreeing that yes, only 15 inmates had been released due to overcrowding in December 1995, Wood said that 195 inmates were released in January 1996, 223 had been released in February and 310 had been released so far in March.

How could releases be increasing so rapidly, especially after such a precipitous drop from April through December 1995? Wood suggested two factors. The first important thing to note is that 66 percent to 75 percent of all county prisoners are in pretrial custody, Wood said. (He also mentioned that 3,486 people had been booked into Multnomah County jails in January 1996 and 3,223 in February. Wood also pointed out that 81 percent of county prisoners are charged with felonies, 11 percent for misdemeanors and traffic violations, and 8 percent for other categories of crime.) The other influences Wood suggested might be relevant were "seasonal factors."

On the one hand, it would seem voters might like to know their $250 million or more is needed just to imprison people not yet convicted of any crime, especially since most prisoners are charged with nonviolent drug offenses. On the other hand, since overall crime was declining during the first quarter of 1996, where is the evidence that the rate of prisoner matrix releases has anything to do with the actual crime rate or the threat to public safety? As for "seasonal factors," since it's apparent that burglars, car thieves, illegal-drug users and so on don't begin taking their holiday "vacations" as early as April, the most reasonable inference would seem to be that the "season" referred to is the "political season" which ends with the bond and levy election on May 21.

Portland NORML had one more question for Wood:

"Have any reporters or editors from The Oregonian or Willamette Week called your office about this recently?"

"No, not that I know of," Wood said.

The propaganda from the media suggests that the three-year levy will be used to cover all the operating costs of these new county jails. On the one hnad, voters should remember that the levy is a direct cost, unlike bonds, and will actually put taxpayers out of pocket much more than the annual bond costs. On the other hand, the county and media are showing bad faith (at best) by not stating up front that operating these new jails will require tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars more per year than the levy will raise. Most important, the county has not budgeted where those millions will come from. Building new jails will thus require cuts in funding for other county programs. Unless county commissioners have another source of funding in mind, they should be on record now where those maintenance costs will come from.

The levy to operate the new jails would replace an expiring levy, but with a large 50 percent increase, raising $24.4 million the first year (1996-1997), $31.6 million the second year and $33.8 million the third year, for a total of $89.8 million. But maintaining 1,486 inmates at an average cost of $75 a day (a figure used by one commissioner) costs $27,375 per year per cell, which would come to $40,679,250 per year, or more than $40 million. That's $16 million more than the county would receive from the levy in 1996-1997. The county would still be short-changed $9 million the second year and almost $7 million the third year. And there will be other costs associated with 480 new jail beds: more judges, prosecutors, probation and other pipeline personnel. Multnomah County also runs several other penal institutions, including a work-release program, etc.

While the Portland mass media have refused to cover this issue professionally, they have also ignored some unprecedented lobbying on behalf of measures 26-45 and 26-42. A heretofore unknown group by the name of "Citizens for Libraries and Public Safety" whose money comes from who knows where, have blanketed every registered voter at every mailing address in the county with an eight-page direct-mail brochure favoring measures 26-45 and 26-42. (The brochure, oddly, does not say a word about "libraries").

The most ludicrous reason to vote yes for new jail bonds was offered by The Oregonian on May 9 in a staff editorial titled "Too many people in jail?" (p. D12): The paper wrote that "Some opponents of the measures contend Oregon already locks up too many people. If so, it's because they've broken the laws that Oregonians want enforced."

On the one hand, the 300,000-daily-circulation newspaper would appear more fair if it let just one of those opponents speak for himself or herself. On the other hand, if a majority of Oregonians really wants the drug laws enforced, it's only because The Oregonian refuses to print the evidence showing that doing so would bankrupt government at every level and oblige everyone not in prison to get about five extra jobs to pay their property taxes.

Please vote no on new jails. Please also urge your neighbors to do the same. While you're at it, please call The Oregonian to complain about its biased reporting and misinformation:

The managing editor is Peter Bhatia, whose phone number is (503) 221-8393.

The newsroom fax number is (503) 221-8557.

The "Letters to the Editor" fax number is (503) 294-4193.

The email address is

Thank you very much.

Phil Smith, volunteer
Portland chapter, National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (Portland NORML)
Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet)

For more information on cannabis and drug-policy issues check out the Portland NORML Web site at

Researchers are welcome at the world's largest online library of drug policy information. The Drug Reform Coordination Network gateway is at


The Oregonian seemed to respond to the essay above with a staff editorial May 18 titled "Cells for crooks," which evaded all of the points above. Smith responded with a subsequent Usenet post May 19 with the header Just Say No to New Jails and The Oregonian's "Cells for crooks".


Back to the History of Oregon Reform Efforts page.

This URL: