As the summer heats up, Multnomah County’s two jails are packed to the brim.

They’re so full, in fact, that 20 inmates were released last weekend just so another round of incoming detainees could be locked up. It was the first time in nearly four years that county inmates were prematurely booted—a process authorities call “matrixing”—simply because there’s no other place for the newly arrested.

This summer, law enforcement organizations in Multnomah County—including the Portland Police Bureau (PPB), the largest driver of inmates at the jails—have regularly been given an “emergency population notice” by the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO), which operates the facilities. That “red alert” notice, issued when 95 percent of the beds are taken up, encourages cops to “cite-and-release” some folks they might otherwise take to jail, or currently incarcerated people will be sprung from either the Multnomah County Detention Center downtown or the Inverness Jail in Northeast Portland.

There’s only been one day this month when the population fell below 90 percent of jail capacity—the threshold for an “early warning notice” to cops about capacity issues.

The current situation was expected after a jail dorm was shuttered last month. While it’s caused panic among law enforcement and those who believe larger jails lead to safer communities, some see it as an opportunity to implement alternatives pushed by anti-incarceration advocates.

“This isn’t a huge surprise,” said County Commissioner Lori Stegmann at last Thursday’s county board meeting. “By setting a hard number [for jail capacity] in the sand, we’re working backward to say we’ve got to figure out a better system.”

As of June 30, when the 59-bed “Dorm 5” at the Inverness Jail officially closed, the jail capacity in Multnomah County reached its smallest point in decades, despite an overall increase in population. There are currently 1,192 available slots—down from 1,251 earlier this year, and down from 1,310 before to the county closed Dorm 4 at the Inverness Jail last September thanks to budget cuts.

“This is the lowest number of jail beds I’ve ever seen,” said MCSO spokesperson Lt. Chad Gaidos, who was hired by the department in 1993 and joined the corrections staff three years later. “When I started, we had 2,500 beds at five facilities in 1996.”

Those incarcerated in county jails are a mix of people who have been arrested and booked but haven’t posted bail, convicts serving short sentences, and people sanctioned for violating parole or probation terms. The average stay is less than two weeks.

The county’s jail capacity was supposed to be where it is now—1,192—on January 1. But with a controversial 3-2 vote in December, county commissioners pumped an extra $505,000 to keep Inverness Jail’s Dorm 5 open through the end of this June [“Multnomah County Was Supposed to Decrease Jail Spending,” News, December 14].

That effort was led by then-Commissioner Diane McKeel, who expressed concern about crime rates in her east county district and argued that more jail capacity means better public safety. Troutdale Mayor Doug Daoust wrote to the board at the time, saying, “We get a funny feeling in our stomachs when the county talks about releasing prisoners.” McKeel was joined in the majority by then-Commissioner Jules Bailey and Commissioner Loretta Smith.

The plan was wholeheartedly opposed by then-Commissioner Judy Shiprack (“Jail doesn’t work, jail doesn’t make us safer,” she said at the time, railing against racial disparities in the system) and County Chair Deborah Kafoury (“Spending taxpayer dollars on jail beds for people too poor to post bail—or [who] are waiting for their case to be resolved—isn’t effective and doesn’t make our community safer”).

Though the board’s three-commissioner majority voted in December (weeks before three of five total members were replaced the following month) to spend a half-million dollars to keep 59-bed Dorm 5 open through June, the MCSO decided not to operate the dorm since the winter despite being allocated the money to do so.

“Essentially what happened was we agreed to not utilize it if we didn’t need it,” Gaidos explains. “We were trying to work within the confines of the 1,192 number” that the MCSO knew it would have to deal with this summer.

The dorm closed June 30, and now it can’t be used as a backup in the typically busy summer months. Cue the current “population emergency.”

“At 95 percent, we start generating a list of who is eligible to be matrixed,” Sheriff Mike Reese told county commissioners last week. “Then you start looking at risk factors: What are they charged with? What’s their past criminal behavior like? What’s the risk to a victim? We generate that matrix list, and the person who scores at the least risk gets released into the community.”

Last weekend, 20 inmates were “matrixed”—the first time Multnomah County inmates have been preemptively released due to overcrowding since November 2013. Two days before their release, Reese said “matrixing is a failure of the system.” In December, while pushing for the funds to keep Dorm 5 open through June, the sheriff said it’s “bad for our entire criminal justice system.”

In the meantime, there’s been a push for local programs intended to keep people out of jail, particularly those dealing with mental illness and drug addiction.

The Unity Center for Behavioral Health opened in January with the intention of aiding people in mental health crises, including those who might otherwise be locked up in jail. Portland is also in the early stages of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD), which eases legal consequences in favor of treatment for some drug users facing charges. There are currently 38 people in the program, though many of them likely wouldn’t be locked up for their possession charges, regardless of the crowding situation.

Abbey Stamp, Executive Director of the county’s Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC), which works on criminal justice policy with law enforcement agencies in the county, is advocating for more changes to reduce jail populations. The county received a $150,000 grant in 2015 from the MacArthur Foundation to pursue jail-reduction strategies, and is currently seeking an additional $2 to 5 million grant.

Stamp doesn’t believe everyone arrested should be booked at the detention center, which is current countywide policy. She wants cite-and-release (i.e. not taking arrested people to jail if they’re low-risk and will show up to court, a strategy now only encouraged when there’s an emergency population notice) to be the norm, regardless of a capacity crisis. She said the county is in talks with Cascadia Behavioral Health Center to take in some people whose mental health may have contributed to a low-level crime but isn’t drastic enough to bring them to the Unity Center.

“No matter the size or capacity, we want to make sure we’re not doing unnecessary harm by putting people in jail who shouldn’t be there in the first place,” Stamp says. “And we want to make sure there’s sufficient room so all the folks who should be in jail are in jail.”