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What Happened to James Chasse: Report calls jail system broken

Thursday, November 2, 2006

Report calls jail system broken


from The Oregonian, by Anna Griffin and Arthur Gregg Sulzberger


Multnomah County's jails have devolved into violent and costly near-chaos mostly because the elected officials responsible for overseeing them refuse to do their jobs, according to a scathing report released Wednesday by District Attorney Michael Schrunk's office.

In a 63-page analysis prepared after almost four months of study, prosecutors describe a jail system in which deputies sometimes tape paper over surveillance cameras to hide their absences, where violent crimes among inmates go unprosecuted and often unreported, and a shrinking number of jail beds means nonviolent and violent offenders share space in a population often left to police itself.

Poor management and misleading financial practices, prosecutors say, cost taxpayers money that could be used to open shuttered jail dorms or improve services for the mentally ill. District attorneys, who say they were "conservative" in their findings, contend Sheriff Bernie Giusto has ignored abuse of staff sick time, failed to back commanders in imposing discipline, and overseen huge increases in overtime and comp time.

The lack of leadership, the report says, extends to the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, who have disengaged from their role of overseeing the sheriff's office and accepted misleading data without asking tough questions.

". . . Many of the concerns we have mentioned in this report are the byproducts of more significant structural problems," wrote prosecutors John Bradley and Chuck French. "This problem is the lack of communication within leadership of this community, and even the lack of a desire to communicate."

Because of the lack of oversight, the district attorney has recommended forming a permanent work group to oversee the conditions and operation of the jail.

"The purpose of this isn't to beat up on the sheriff or beat up on the men and women of the sheriff's office," Schrunk said Wednesday. "There are some really positive things that can come out of this: The main thing is a good, healthy discussion."

Through a spokesman, Giusto declined to comment. Lt. Jason Gates said the sheriff wanted a chance to read the document and talk with his aides and probably wouldn't respond until Friday.

Prosecutors began work this summer at the request of Commissioner Lisa Naito and in conjunction with the corrections grand jury, which meets annually. Naito asked for the study after a series of security lapses, most recently a case in which a male inmate sneaked into a woman's cell for sex.

The deputy on duty didn't know what had happened until 21/2 hours later, when the inmate buzzed to be returned to his cell. Giusto didn't inform county commissioners until more than two weeks after the fact.

A growing chorus of voices --including earlier corrections grand juries --has called on Giusto to cut rising costs and put the savings into opening closed jail dorms and the $58 million Wapato Jail. As the report notes, many of those calls have gone unheeded. Giusto has said that suggested fixes, such as renegotiating union contracts to reduce personnel costs, are outside his control.

The report represents a more substantive effort to nail down facts and figures to force change. Prosecutors traveled widely to study other jails. They hired an independent financial consultant. And with the corrections grand jury, they questioned more than 100 witnesses.

The district attorney even released findings early to resolve disputes before the final product.

Prosecutors found a system broken on nearly every level, both by policy decisions and tangled communication between the politically frayed county board and Giusto.

Prosecutors focused on three areas: rising and questionable personnel costs, poor oversight from elected leaders and security lapses.

Costs

As personnel costs have risen --driven by huge increases in overtime, comp time and what prosecutors call sick-time abuse --keeping an inmate behind bars has become significantly more expensive. Also driving up the cost is closure of the two most cost-efficient jails during Giusto's tenure.

Even as the number of jail beds fell from 2,100 to 1,700, jail spending increased 10 percent.

Multnomah County spends about $157 per inmate a day, compared with $111 in King County, Wash.; $103 in Clark County; and $89 in Washington County. The juvenile detention center, run by the Department of Community Justice, spends $401 a day to house young inmates, far more than other communities spend, according to the report.

One result is that contracts to house inmates from other jurisdictions no longer cover costs. The county loses $12 million annually, according to the report, which recommends terminating or changing those contracts.

These losses are particularly glaring in a county forced to regularly release inmates because of a lack of jail space.

Giusto has previously disputed some of the report's numbers, but prosecutors doubt his figures.

"We found so many discrepancies in their financial procedures we could not rely on their financial conclusions," the report says, adding that Giusto, and Dan Noelle before him, manipulated numbers to push the Board of Commissioners toward particular proposals.

Oversight

Although Giusto takes the brunt of the criticism, prosecutors also fault county commissioners and even regulators.

The Oregon Department of Corrections, for example, hasn't toured county jails since 2003, according to the report. State law requires the county board to regularly inspect the jails. That has not happened.

Giusto's relationship with commissioners has been prickly. They say he ignores requests for information and their cost-cutting recommendations. He says they don't give him enough money or understand his job. He's called them "my bankers."

Prosecutors say the board must take more responsibility and Giusto must cede some. They recommend an independent work group to regularly inspect the jails and report to the board.

"In many ways, we believe that re-establishing a healthy relationship between the county sheriff and the Board of Commissioners is our most significant proposal," Bradley and French wrote. "Most of the other problems identified in this report stem from a breakdown in that relationship."

Security

Prosecutors say one result of rising costs and little oversight is an increase in violence and security lapses.

They point, for example, to the death in June 2005 of Dennis Saban, a drug addict who was beaten in his cell while a guard was on an unscheduled and unreported break.

Saban's cellmate, charged in his death, was a convicted killer awaiting trial for another slaying and had a history of violence toward other cellmates. Prosecutors found that the deputy did not know the cellmate's history and suggested that he should have been isolated. They say the sheriff's office used single-bunk cells at Inverness Jail for dangerous inmates rather than as a reward for good behavior. They also wondered why the sheriff waited more than a year after Saban's death to start an internal affairs investigation.

Twice in the past two years, prosecutors noted, people brought in on low-level offenses were released before deputies learned they had murder warrants in other states. The sheriff's office releases anyone who cannot be adequately identified in four hours, on a promise to appear in court. One of the men released killed two people before committing suicide, prosecutors said.

Among their suggestions, Bradley and French said Giusto should hold suspects longer than the department's four-hour limit to ensure thorough background checks first. Other suggestions include enabling security cameras to record activity and installing glass doors on private cells.

The district attorney's office also brought up the recent death of James Chasse Jr., a mentally ill man who died in Portland police custody in September after a struggle with officers. Prosecutors say Chasse's case raises a number of questions about the booking process and whether police officers and the clerks, deputies and nurses who greet them exchange enough information.

The jail nurse told investigators she spent "about two minutes" examining Chasse through a cell window and was never told the extent of his struggle with police.

The corrections grand jury is expected to release its report, which will address many of the same issues, later this month.

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