IN OREGON'S QUEST to slash prison growth, Portland is a keystone.

Multnomah County alone typically accounts for upward of one-fifth of the state's prisoners, so any attempt to save millions on prison beds and avoid an expensive new prison—as lawmakers tried to do with a piece of sentence reform legislation last year ["Out of the Frying Pan..." News, Oct 9]—goes partly through the city.

That's why the coming months may be vital for the fate of state prison reform.

After hashing out a plan for months, officials in May unveiled a strategy they're hoping keeps Portland's criminals local. Now, they'd like to borrow some cops.

On Wednesday, August 27, county justice officials are slated to appear before Portland City Council to ask to commandeer two Portland police officers and a sergeant through June 2015.

In exchange for officers' part-time help keeping tabs on offenders who, absent last year's changes, would have been locked in prison, the county will pay the police bureau $152,000 in state funds earmarked for prison reform. Justice officials will make similar pitches throughout the county in coming weeks, eventually forming something known as the 3194 Offender Law Enforcement Supervision and Support unit.

"There is an urgent need to execute this agreement," reads an ordinance headed before the Portland City Council, noting that offenders will be "returned to the community imminently."

Under 2013's House Bill 3194, criminals who'd almost certainly have gone to prison on specific drug, robbery, and identity-theft crimes are supposed to receive probation and local jail stays in increased numbers. That would cut strain on the state's 14 prisons, and delay the need for a costly new hoosegow in Junction City.

At least that's the plan.

As the Mercury's reported, early results of the sentencing tweaks have been mixed, with prison intakes from some counties actually going up ["Sentence Structure," News, May 14]. Even in Multnomah County, which had the largest net reduction in prisoners in May, more people—not fewer—were sent to prison on some affected drug offenses (a new analysis is due out in September).

To help the process along, the county is using around $2.5 million in state funds to more thoroughly vet people charged with HB 3194-affected crimes. By assessing criminals' likelihood of reoffending early on, officials think they can figure out who should be in prison, and who can cool their heels in county jail or under the supervision of a probation officer.

The first batch of assessments is underway, and the county won't see the effects of the changes until late September at the earliest, says Scott Taylor, director of Multnomah County Department of Community Justice, which handles probation and former prisoners.

"Those folks are still, most of them, in jail," Taylor says, but they'll be out soon enough. Which is why officials need cops, they say, who can specifically deal with problems that might arise in this group.

According to the prospective agreement between the county and city, cops dealing with HB 3194 offenders will serve warrants, visit offenders in their homes, and "provide proactive patrol in geographic areas where offenders live and/or commit crimes."

Of course, the true mark of whether the county's prison reform experiment works will be how busy the cops are.

The county might excel at divining which released convicts are least likely to reoffend or violate their probation. Or it might struggle to judge who's a good bet or not.

And some convicts who wind up running afoul of the authorities wouldn't stay on the streets. They'd be shipped to prison, just like the days before sentencing reform.

"When we need assistance picking up someone on a warrant," time is of the essence, says Taylor. "When we want to see why someone didn't show up for an appointment, we want to reach out to them real quick."