Tina Chalfont
Fate was smiling on Robert Reese. Arrested for four counts of burglary, one count criminal mischief, and an assorted handful of other crimes, Reese was escorted to Multnomah County jail in downtown Portland two weekends ago. He expected to settle in for a long stay. But when he arrived, the booking agent at the jail's front desk turned him away. To his amazement, Reese was informed that the jail was full and no longer taking non-violent prisoners.

In fact, in the last 60 days, the jail has turned away or released early 408 prisoners. With no more beds or jail cells available, the sheriff currently has stopped taking additional, non-violent prisoners. On the other hand, when they absolutely must free up space for an accused murderer or drug dealer, they have been releasing lower level criminals before their sentences run their course.

"None of us like this solution," says Dan Noelle, the stern and self-admittedly impatient Multnomah County Sheriff. On the other hand, admits Noelle, the released prisoners are thrilled; he likens them to a bunch of kids at a frat party, shouting and jumping for joy.

Although the sheriff's office will first turn away non-violent criminals who have committed petty thefts or people who have been arrested for drug possession (but not distribution), increasingly the sheriff is finding that they need to turn away or release even more odious criminals. After a 190 bed prison in Troutdale was shut down nearly two years ago due to budget cuts, the sheriff was left with only 1850 beds in the county. Furthermore, budget shortfalls have not allowed the sheriff's department to create any more jail space since then. The 1850 beds and jail cells at the jail are used for Portland-area prisoners serving sentences from drug possession to car theft, and for holding those awaiting trial, sometimes for even more hardcore crimes like murder and armed robbery.

"Effectively, when I hit 1851 (prisoners)," says Noelle, "I have to release one." He goes on to explain, "Some weekends we release as many as 30 to 40. Some of the people we are releasing are not who we want to release." Some of these prisoners pose threats to the public safety, and Noelle believes that others who are not booked will never show up for their trials.

Bothered by a nagging sense that they were not doing their job, a few months ago the sheriff's office came up with the unique idea to post on a website the names, pictures, and home addresses of the prisoners they were releasing.

"We wanted to do something so it wasn't just turning people out in the middle of the night," explains Noelle. "They are a little like sexual predators," he adds, referring to the common, but controversial, protocol of publicly announcing to residents when an accused sexual predator is released from prison and moves into a neighborhood. "Their right to privacy is outweighed by the public's right to know." Noelle is particularly proud that the website allows people to search by zip code for prisoners released into their neighborhood.

Although the so-called "Megan Laws" that allow states to notify residents when a sexual predator is released into a neighborhood are controversial (last week, the Supreme Court considered whether those laws are constitutional), so far there have been no lawsuits or legal complaints from released prisoners. "Our attorney believes it is okay," adds Noelle.

But while the prisoners may be thrilled with the new catch-and-release protocol, the bold policy has put the sheriff's office at odds with the county board. Noelle admits he has used the website to chide the county board who control his budget.

In addition, Noelle has tried to force the state to provide help. One out of five prisoners have mental health issues, says Noelle. Once diagnosed, Noelle believes these prisoners should be transported and housed at a state-run mental hospital. But the state has been slow to agree. To force their hand, Noelle has leveled two lawsuits--one in federal court, one in state court; both to demand that the state take on prisoners with mental health problems. The sheriff won their federal lawsuit, but it is on appeal at the state's court of appeals; the lawsuit in state court is still awaiting a hearing.