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No Fiscal Cliff Deal Could Cause Jails To Release Inmates

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File photo of a prison cell. (credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

File photo of a prison cell. (credit: Frank Micelotta/Getty Images)

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EUGENE, Ore. (AP) — A scenario that police in western Oregon feared came true in the thick of holiday season after two dozen inmates were freed from a county jail that could no longer afford to hold them.

Less than an hour after one low-level offender walked out, authorities say, he was demanding that a bank teller hand over money.

In a time of budget cuts, cases where inmates get out of jail with little punishment only to commit more serious crimes shortly after their release have become all too common, authorities say.

Many in law enforcement predicted this would happen, and it could get worse if the nation goes over the so-called fiscal cliff.

The recession and a steady reduction in federal subsidies to timber counties have led Oregon sheriffs and district attorneys to juggle deep cuts. There are fewer jail beds, sheriff’s patrols, prosecutors, parole officers and specialized investigators.

Prosecutors have to toss out more than a quarter of the cases that cross their desks, just because there aren’t enough people to handle them.

“It makes me crazy,” said Patricia Perlow, chief deputy district attorney for Lane County.

When Christopher Franklin Weaver was released the week after Thanksgiving it represented the sort of decision that has become routine for law enforcement officials. There wasn’t enough room for all the offenders, and since he was in custody on a nonviolent parole violation, he was deemed safe enough to turn loose.

“Everybody we’re releasing is dangerous to society,” said Lane County Sheriff Tom Turner. “But we’re having to choose which ones to keep and which ones to let out.”

As common as such lesser-of-two-evils calls have become, authorities could find themselves making them more often depending on what happens in the nation’s capital. If the ongoing budget negotiations between Republican House Speaker John Boehner and President Barack Obama end without an agreement and automatic spending reductions kick in, it would trigger an 8 percent cut in nearly $2 billion in federal grants that go to state and local law enforcement.

That would come on top of $1.5 billion cuts to federal law enforcement grants since fiscal 2010, said Elizabeth Pyke, director of government affairs for the National Criminal Justice Association.

“It would not be unreasonable to envision a day in the not too distant future when federal support for state and local law enforcement will be virtually eliminated,” she said.

As the details get worked out, the grants could take even deeper cuts, as appropriators shift funding to higher priority agencies such as the FBI. Over the next nine years of the Budget Control Act of 2011, the slashes would become deeper and deeper.

“Every time we have a budget cut, we have to get creative,” said Lane County sheriff’s Sgt. Rob White. “But we’re getting pretty good at it.”

In Oregon timber country, where voters have consistently refused to raise taxes to make up for sharp revenue drops, jail commanders already are making the best use they can of a protocol affectionately known as “the RAT.”

Their risk assessment tool ranks inmates based on nearly 80 questions about their criminal history and other factors to predict how likely they are to reoffend.

Weaver’s ranking put him in the middle of the 30 released that day. After holding up the bank, he walked out with nearly $500 stuffed in his back pocket, authorities say.

Police spotted him on the street within minutes, and after a foot chase, Weaver was back in jail, where he is not likely to be let out any time soon — there is plenty of room, according to officials, for someone facing a federal bank robbery charge.

Weaver remains in custody and was not available for comment. He has not been indicted on the most recent arrest and has not been asked to enter a plea. His next court date has not been scheduled.

Repeated attempts to reach his lawyer, Craig E. Weinerman, for comment were not successful.

Former Coburg police officer Michael Anson regularly brought criminal suspects to the Lane County Jail.

“I’d bring somebody in the back door, and watch ‘em walk out the front,” he said.

Now he owns a metal fabrication business, which has been hit by two burglaries, neither of which he bothered to report because he figured nothing would happen. When crime hits, he said, “you deal and adjust.”

For Perlow, the county’s chief assistant prosecutor, further cuts would be untenable.

“Unless somebody buys a winning Powerball ticket and donates it to the county,” she said. “We are going to need a secure continuous funding source.”

(© Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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