Illustration by Jeff Versoi

THE METAPHORIC BLEEDING has ceased in Portland's jails.

In 2012, Multnomah County Sheriff Dan Staton was forced to release 913 inmates because of overcrowding—an alarming figure that spurred elected officials into conversations about tweaking policy ["Pressure Release," News, June 12, 2013]. But despite that work, 2013 was shaping up even worse.

Then the wound clotted.

The jail, though still frequently near capacity, has not logged a so-called "emergency population release" since November 2013—but officials are fretting all the same. With that good news comes a loss of millions.

For years, the jails have counted on being stocked—at a profit—with federal prisoners. The US Marshals Service pays a premium for the right to stow their charges in our two county facilities.

But that's recently changed. Partly because the county's been successful in bartering for high compensation, the marshals service is using Multnomah County as a holding pen less and less. That's raised red flags among finance types about current budget assumptions, and warnings of ongoing losses to the general fund.

The county's current budget estimated more than $5.2 million in revenue from the holds— money offset, in part, by the cost of keeping those extra prisoners. But that figure's proven wildly optimistic. If current trends continue, budget staffers warn that revenue may be slashed in half in coming years.

"That means less money available for other programs," says Mike Jaspin, the county's deputy budget director.

The reduction places county officials in an odd spot—more or less crossing their fingers that a Columbia County levy will fail in May, forcing our neighbors to the northwest to shutter their own troubled jail. That could herd more federal prisoners back our way.

"I don't want to say 'hoping,'" says Jaspin. "But if it were to fail, it's reasonable to assume that some of those people might end up here."

Until recently, Multnomah County could safely count on holding at least 100 federal prisoners a day—people awaiting trial in Portland's US District Court or recent convicts waiting to be sent elsewhere.

And the feds paid well for use of all those beds. Multnomah County receives $128 a day for each prisoner, up from just $89 in 2001. The per diem is the highest the marshals service pays in Oregon, and well above the national average, according to federal data.

No one keeps figures on what it costs, on average, for Multnomah County to house a federal prisoner—a number that depends on what kind of security they're placed under and medical requirements. The consensus is the holds are moneymakers, subsidizing jail costs.

But in the middle of last year, the marshals service's patronage began to drop to unprecedented levels—down from 100 or more prisoners a day to the high 80s, then the 70s, and then, by early this month, the mid 40s.

The county's assumption it would house an average of 112 federal prisoners a day this fiscal year has now shrunk to 64, a difference of $2.2 million in revenues.

Those numbers are based on how the marshals service lodges its prisoners.

Whenever possible, the agency is required to house offenders in federal detention centers, says Dave Brown, a supervisor at the Portland office. For Portland-area prisoners, that means the facility in Sheridan, roughly 50 miles to the southwest. But Sheridan is under no requirement to accept inmates from the marshals, and until fairly recently would turn many away, according to Brown.

That's changed.

"In recent history, there's been more of a push to keep that [facility] as full as possible," Brown says. "They seem to be able to take more of our people without as many issues."

For inmates who can't stay at Sheridan, either because it's at capacity or for other reasons, the US Marshals Service prefers to use the Columbia County Jail in St. Helens. Columbia County charges just $78 a day per prisoner.

Despite that lower rate, federal prisoner holds are about the only source of revenue propping up the 255-bed jail. Slashes to Columbia County's operating budget in recent years have resulted in enough money to open only 25 beds to local prisoners.

On March 18, just 21 of that jail's 129 inmates were there on local matters. The rest were on hold for the federal government.

Columbia County has tried time and again to rectify this funding quagmire, putting seven tax levies before voters since 2002, according to Elections Supervisor Pam Benham. One managed to pass, but didn't go into effect because 50 percent of eligible voters didn't participate in the election, Benham says.

A last-ditch effort is likely to go on the May ballot, and county leaders are warning of dire consequences if it fails.

"While no one can know for sure the degree to which the loss of the county jail will impact the way we live, I do believe with all my heart it will be worse than most of us imagine," Columbia County Sheriff Jeff Dickerson wrote in a letter to citizens in February. He said the county will attract a "criminal element" and that people will be "emboldened to flagrantly violate the law."

And it's not that Multnomah County leaders wish that on Columbia County. It's just that they want those federal inmates.

If the levy fails, Jaspin told Multnomah County commissioners in a recent hearing, Multnomah County can plan on perhaps 95 daily federal holds going forward. Brown, the marshals service supervisor, confirms more inmates would probably be sent Portland's way.

"If the levy passes, we cannot count on [receiving] those people," Jaspin said.

That troubled Commissioner Loretta Smith, who asked why the sheriff's office couldn't secure a contract from the feds guaranteeing a certain amount of use each year.

"Is it not logical," Smith said, "to ask the US Marshals: Can we have a contract for, say, 50? Why is this so open-ended?"

Such an arrangement had been attempted, Budget Director Karyne Kieta said, but the feds had refused.

Not mentioned in the exchange: The county's jail system is always hovering near capacity—usually just 100 inmates or fewer from triggering an emergency release at any given moment.

If, say, each of those 100-plus federal inmates sitting in Columbia County on March 18 came to Portland, money would follow, but the jail may be back to where it was in 2012: overfull.

"If we can just guarantee 50 [federal holds]," Smith said at the recent hearing. "If we get extra, then I'm good with that."