Jails across Oregon have drastically reduced their populations, according to a survey conducted by Disability Rights Oregon. On average, jails have nearly 50 percent fewer people in custody as compared to their pre-pandemic population.
Tillamook County Sheriff Jim Horton said due to the COVID-19 threat and for protection of the inmate population and the Corrections Division staff, an administrative decision was made several weeks ago to release lower level, lower risk inmates from custody at Tillamook County Corrections. The decision made a difference in the sheriff's office protection efforts.
Horton said the sheriff's office began the measured release shortly after the emergency declaration was made by the Tillamook County Board of Commissioners and several teleconferences with other sheriff's around the state through OSSA.
"This was over the course of a week as we tried to identify the lowest public safety risk inmates to release," Horton said.
Circuit court also arranged alternative sentences, releases, delayed reporting and other measures to reduce the inmate population the best they could, Horton said. This was a collaborative effort and not a decision that was made lightly.
“This is in accordance with what other sheriff’s offices around the state have done and are doing to protect the overall inmate population, as well as law enforcement staff,” Horton said. “There have been several meetings with the Oregon State Sheriff’s Association regarding this issue and we have formulated a best practice as it relates to inmate management during this crisis.”
Prior to COVID-19, Tillamook County’s inmate population was averaging around 70 inmates and are currently housing approximately 30 inmates, Horton said.
Reducing the jail population has made jail conditions safer for those left in custody and the employees who work at jails, allowing for improved social distancing in a high-intensity setting. To date, there have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 among the inmate population in Oregon county jails.
“There have been no reported issues with this course of action at this time,” Horton said. “The majority of the inmates released from our custody were at the latter half of their imposed sentence or serving duration probation/parole violation custody sanctions.”
Horton said high public safety risk inmates have not been released from the county’s custody and there are no plans to do so. If there is a public safety risk and it is best managed by taking an individual into custody, the inmate will be accepted into the facility.
“Public safety is our primary mission,” Horton said.
If the threat is minimal, they may continue to look for alternatives such as site and release or referrals to the District Attorney's office for prosecution.
"I expect that as things begin to open up, we will also be accepting more inmates into the facility but we will continue to move very slowly because COVID-19 continues to represent a major public health/safety threat to our community," Horton said.
The dramatic drop in jail populations in response to the pandemic was achieved through a variety of locally-driven solutions. Most jails worked with courts and law enforcement to curtail their admissions criteria, turning away arrestees who are charged with minor and/or non-person crimes, or who show signs of illness.
Supply stockpiles for sanitary items such as soap and/or hand sanitizer have not been an issue at this time for the facility, Horton said. The reduction in the inmate population has assisted with this issue.
“Our agency does receive additional PPE supplies through Oregon Emergency Management, but this supply chain is directed toward our patrol staff and other first responders in the field,” Horton said.