Illustration by Zack Soto

IF YOU'RE THE TYPE to bemoan the state's prison bloat, then you'll like House Bill 3194.

The multi-tentacled legislation signed by Governor John Kitzhaber in July is expected to slow Oregon's meteoric prison growth and invest the savings in initiatives to reduce crime. It will delay new beds in the state's existing prisons, an analysis found, and put off need for a new one in Junction City.

Prison use in Oregon—which has grown at more than four times the national average since 2000—is actually expected to fall by more than 500 beds by 2016, thanks to the legislation. It is a godsend for the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) and it might spur the first expansion of Multnomah County jail beds since 2005.

"There will be a local impact," Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill tells the Mercury. "There's debate about: What will that be?"

Underhill, who had a hand in crafting the particulars of HB 3194, is as conversant in the law as anyone in Multnomah County. He's also one of the few public safety officials who'll address what many seem hesitant to say about money tied to the legislation: "The expectation is that the jail is going to open more jail beds."

That's a move that could prove contentious.

Multnomah County has had concerning trouble with jail crowding in the last two years, but officials responded by focusing on smarter use of existing beds rather than merely increasing capacity. With the arrival of HB 3194—which took effect on August 1, but is expected to be increasingly felt in coming months—that's no longer the case.

The legislation is intricate, but at its most basic level keeps people who would have gone to the state penitentiary closer to home. Many offenders facing felonies for marijuana possession or driving with a suspended license will no longer see prison. People guilty of robbery in the third degree will get reduced sentences.

The law also grants offenders earlier release for good behavior. And it comes as local officials are already tweaking policy around felony sentences, favoring probation where, in recent years, prison was assumed.

In other words: Oregon will have fewer prisoners, but not necessarily fewer criminals. Those criminals will serve jail sentences, toil under probation, and potentially commit new crimes—Multnomah County's recidivism rate among felons is roughly 25 percent—taxing local resources and increasing demand for jail beds that are scarcer than ever.

But the law also will kick nearly $3.1 million to the county in the next two years to help it deal with the increased pressure—and hopefully enact policies that reduce crime rates. And the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office will get roughly $1 million of its own, with the expectation it'll be used to create more jail space.

Between downtown's Multnomah County Detention Center and the Inverness Jail in East Portland, the county lists its current capacity at 1,310 jail beds. The facilities can actually hold almost 1,500 inmates, but they've been staffed for diminishing capacities in the last decade.

The situation grew alarming last year, when the county was forced to release 913 inmates because of jail overcrowding, a crisis that spurred the creation of a workgroup to examine who's being kept in jail, and why ["Pressure Release," News, June 12]. Officials have largely steered the conversation clear of increasing capacity. But with the onset of HB 3194—and the money that comes with it—that move seems more and more likely.

Opening a 59-bed dorm for a year would cost roughly $1.2 million for a year, says sheriff's office spokesman Lieutenant Steve Alexander.

"No decision has been made at this point," he says. "It's still in discussion."

Others acknowledge the writing is on the wall.

"The people who used to get a prison sentence—most of those people are going to see some jail time," says Ginger Martin, deputy director of the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice. "There's pressure there for additional beds."

"The feeling is that we can't just do this in a vacuum," says Suzanne Hayden, executive director of the Citizens' Crime Commission. "There's going to be a need to make sure we have adequate capacity."

Any increase, officials hope, would be relatively short-lived.

Where HB 3194 produces real excitement, locally, is in the promise of significant future funding. If everything works as hoped, the state corrections department could see as much as $70 million in savings in the 2015-2017 biennium thanks to the law. Those savings would be redistributed around the state, with Multnomah County receiving as much as $14 million to reinvest in justice policies and programs that slash the crime rate.

"This is an unprecedented conversation," says Hayden. "It's not just this one facet, that we're going to reduce the use of prison. It's an effort to make sure we're doing everything we can to reduce recidivism at its heart."

Whether that effort will work, though, is far from clear.

"People are not interested in emptying prison beds to fill jail beds," Underhill says. "Can we engage in equal or better public safety? That's the million-dollar question."

Clarification: This article has been updated to reflect new information from the Multnomah County Sheriff's Office about the cost of opening a new dorm in the Inverness Jail. That number is roughly $568,000 a year per dorm, but there are associated "start-up" costs for opening a new wing of the jail that more than double that figure.