by Ron Georg
The Benton County jail has such a strong reputation regionally that Benton County Sheriff Diana Simpson said it attracts guests from other counties.
“We had a guy come down, he knew he had a warrant, I think it was in Multnomah County,” Simpson said. “So he drove himself down to Benton County to turn himself in, because he knew that we probably wouldn’t have room to take him. It turns out, we actually did have room to take him that particular evening.”
The ploy didn’t work, but it was a well-informed strategy. The fugitive must have been aware that while many counties hold arrestees until they get to see a judge, that’s not always an option in the Benton County Jail, where there are 40 beds to house an average of 70 to 90 inmates.
Obviously, that math doesn’t work. So, in addition to the 40 beds at the jail in downtown Corvallis, just north of the County Building, Benton County transfers inmates to Lincoln and Yamhill Counties. The need is so certain that Benton County has 20 beds under contract constantly in each county, at a cost of $1 million annually.
It wasn’t meant to be this way. When the jail was built in 1976, it was intended as a stop-gap until the state created a system of regional jails. That didn’t happen, and Benton County has had to make do with the jail since, adding beds in the ‘90s to bring the total to 40.
Jail officials have adapted. When a suspect is booked into the jail, he’s assessed on a variety of criteria, and that score will determine whether he qualifies to be released until he can see a judge. If there’s no room at the jail, the suspect will be released, except in specific cases (including domestic violence).
As a result, the whole criminal justice system in Benton County has had to evolve.
“Unfortunately, what’s happened over the years is we’ve done such a good job of managing this jail and accommodating the fact that we don’t have enough room, that now all the sentencing decisions by the judges, all the arrest decisions, all the sanctions decisions by parole/probation are all determined by whether there’s room at the jail or not,” Simpson said.
Still, the system is working, after a fashion, and some would argue that these adaptive strategies have led to a more creative, flexible, even a more just system.
Peter Wagner is the Executive Director of the Prison Policy Initiative, a group which looks at the impacts of incarceration on society. Wagner stressed that he hasn’t studied Benton County’s situation. “You may need a new jail,” he said.
But he also explained how a new jail could reverse what might be seen as positive trends. “The judges are saying this person’s not a risk, so I’m going to adjust my discretion downward, because I know we have this problem,” he said, adding that a new jail could inspire the opposite dynamic. “The historical record on this is that if you build it, the judges will fill it.”
“The real fundamental problem with jails is that they’re exactly like highways,” Wagner explained. “You have traffic. If you make the highway wider, there will be just as much traffic, if not worse, because it will distract you from thinking about better ways to solve the problem. You can’t build your way out of a traffic problem, and you can’t incarcerate your way out of a jail problem.”
The Sheriff’s Office had a needs assessment done by the federal Justice Department’s National Institute of Corrections, and that confirmed what local officials have known for years. “The consultant said basically that if the criminal justice system is the dog, the jail is the tail that wags the dog,” Simpson said.
Now the county has authorized another assessment, and county and corrections officials are putting together a request for proposals to find an independent consultant. Wagner said that selection process is crucial. He extended his road metaphor to explain: “You don’t want Exxon-Mobil or Goodyear Tire deciding whether the road needs to be expanded.”
Ultimately, this will have to go before voters, who’ve turned down two previous attempts to bond for a new facility. While local voters do seem inclined toward supporting community infrastructure, jails are a harder sell.
“It’s not a park, it’s not a library, it’s not something feel-good,” Simpson said of voter reluctance. “I think maybe there’s a certain level of ‘If I don’t think about it, maybe it’s not really there, and I don’t have to deal with it.’ I think there are a lot of people who believe that there is no crime in Benton County.”
From where Simpson sits, there is crime in Benton County, and the current jail facility isn’t helping mitigate the problem. “We end up seeing the same people over and over again, because we’re not doing anything to help them get back on track with their lives,” Simpson said. “We are sending people to other jails, in other counties, and they’re coming back not any better than when they came into jail. If we had a new jail where we could provide programming, and treatment, and the things necessary to help that person get back on track, then we’re going to potentially save the county money in the long run.”
It may seem ironic, in a place designed specifically to strip people of their freedom, but if those goals can be met a new jail may have merit, as Simpson puts it, “just for the humanity of it.”