Editorial: Keeping the right people in jail

Published Jun 6, 2014 at 12:01AM

It’s not always easy to figure out who should be in jail before a trial. Public safety officials in Deschutes County are making a change that should lead to better decisions.

Deschutes County Sheriff Larry Blanton has offered to fund a release assistance officer for the Deschutes County Circuit Court. It’s not exactly clear how much the position will cost. The sheriff authorized $100,000 a year, although it likely won’t cost that much, he said.

Deschutes County’s courts had a release officer until the position was eliminated by budget cuts in 2011.

A release officer does interviews and investigations about alleged crimes and a defendant’s background and history. Does the defendant have a job? Is this a first offense or a 15th? Has a defendant failed to appear in court before?

The officer shares the information with the judge, the defendant’s attorney and the deputy district attorney assigned to the case. The officer can make a recommendation whether a defendant should be held in jail before trial or released.

Because the position was eliminated, officials working in the courts can have to make those decisions with less information.

Of course, dangerous people need to be locked up before trial. But if someone can be released before trial, not cause harm and be counted on to make required appearances, there can be a number of positives. It leaves more room in the jail for people who should be in jail.

There can be benefits for the defendants, too. If they don’t have to be in jail before their cases are resolved, they have a better chance of being able to keep a job. That has all sorts of benefits.

Jeff Hall, the trial court administrator for Deschutes County Circuit Court, said it was easy to say yes to the idea when Blanton made the offer. An intergovernmental agreement was worked out. Hall is advertising for the position.

It’s of course odd that the Sheriff’s Office is effectively paying the state to re-create a position. It would be better for the state to fund it. But having the position makes for a better-functioning legal system. It’s a testament to the ability of local public safety officials to work together and not get trapped by bureaucratic boundaries.