The Multnomah County Board of Commissioners had a tough question to answer last Thursday: Is it okay if some county jail inmates are potentially released earlier than expected due to overcrowding, or should the county give half a million dollars to the sheriff’s office to keep a soon-to-be shuttered dorm open for six more months?

It was, in essence, a spirited debate between an emerging liberal anti-jail philosophy and the more old-school “lock them up” status quo. The status quo won, by a vote of 3-2.

“Jail doesn’t work, jail doesn’t make us safer,” said outgoing Commissioner Judy Shiprack, who spoke passionately for 16 minutes Thursday morning, railing against mass incarceration, racial disparities in the justice system, and more. Shiprack argued that jail is pointless without addressing the root causes of crime, and criticized the idea of funding jail beds rather than programs to address those causes. “What are the outcomes we gain by having them there?” she asked.

County Chair Deborah Kafoury echoed Shiprack’s sentiment. “Spending taxpayer dollars on jail beds for people who are too poor to post bail—or are waiting for their case to be resolved—isn’t effective and it doesn’t make our community safer,” Kafoury said.

Their colleagues didn’t agree.

“Crime is up in East County,” said outgoing Commissioner Diane McKeel, whose district represents East Portland, Gresham, Troutdale, and Fairview. Citing increased crime rates, the mayors of Gresham and Troutdale wrote letters to the board asking it to approve funding so that the dorm—Inverness Jail Dorm 5—doesn’t close.

Commissioner Loretta Smith sided with McKeel in her belief that, yes, the community is less safe if inmates are let go early because there aren’t enough beds. Outgoing Commissioner Jules Bailey—with a wishy-washy deciding vote—joined them, essentially punting on taking a strong stand either way so “the next board can make an assessment.”

The vote means the county will use $505,000 of the $808,000 in its contingency fund to keep the 59-bed dorm room at the Inverness Jail open through June 30, the end of the fiscal year.

The board, with three new members taking office in January, will have to make another decision on funding in the spring, at the same time a new program—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), which is intended to divert low-level drug offenders from jail—takes off [“Taking the LEAD,” News, July 13].

Dorm 5 was slated to close on New Year’s Day because of a series of budget cuts the board voted on earlier this year. Another 59-bed dorm at the jail, known as Dorm 4, was closed this summer. The two closures would have dropped the county’s jail bed capacity from 1,310 to 1,192.

That’s too steep of a cut, says new Sheriff Mike Reese, whose office runs the jail. The inmates at the Inverness Jail, in Northeast Portland, are a mix of people who have been arrested but haven’t posted bail, defendants awaiting trial, convicts serving short sentences, and people sanctioned for violating parole or probation. The average stay is less than two weeks. The sheriff’s office also runs a facility in the Justice Center in downtown Portland.

Reese warned that if Inverness’ Dorm 5 were closed as scheduled, the jail would be in a “continual population emergency”—meaning the facility would most likely be at more than 95 percent capacity and so would be forced to release inmates. At a number of points over the last couple years, the sheriff’s office housed more jail inmates than the proposed new capacity would have been able to handle.

“We get a funny feeling in our stomachs when the county talks about closing beds and releasing prisoners,” Troutdale Mayor Doug Daoust wrote to the county board. “Maybe that’s due to seeing increase [in crime] in our East County neighborhoods, and witnessing our neighbor who was in jail, and gets released only to recommit similar crimes again.... I see the data, and I see the need is definitely in place.”

Daoust questioned whether the county’s LEAD program will have a large enough impact on jail numbers: “I do not have the faith required to say that these programs will do much to relieve effects of closing Dorm 5 next year.”

McKeel’s office found the argument persuasive.

“We’ve put an oar in the water” in terms of programs like LEAD, said her chief of staff, Eric Zimmerman, but “we haven’t realized the return on investment yet and that may take some time. I think there is a recognition that you can have all the good intentions in the world, but at the end of the day, in East County where Diane represents, our numbers and statistics are up double digits. There is something to be said about making sure we have an adequate public safety net.”

To Shiprack, it’s not necessary to devote jail beds to people charged with crimes she says are low-level and subjective. She specifically highlights those facing charges of disorderly conduct or interference with a police officer.

“I think it’s important to recognize there’s a difference between the people we’re afraid of and the people we’re mad at,” she tells the Mercury. “One of the most shameful and oppressive and wrong parts of our justice system is that it is racially and ethnically disparate... The only way to close [the beds] is to close them.” .