PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Mask mandates continue to be lifted and social distancing is becoming a thing of the past, but one pandemic-related public safety change that isn’t going away is the limited utilization of the Multnomah County Jail. 

As of May 1, 2023, there were 860 occupied beds at the Multnomah County Jail, out of a total of 1,117 available beds. This means the county is operating at 77% of its capacity to house inmates. 

The average jail utilization throughout the month of March 2023 was 76%. It’s an increase from February 2022 when the average utilization was 70%, but still nowhere near the pre-pandemic rate of 87-95%. That means the jail is housing about 150 fewer people now than it was before March 2020. 

Although county and Portland city leadership have pointed to the pandemic as a reason for limiting the jail’s utilization for the past three years, officials said the Biden administration’s expected May decision to lift the COVID-19 public health emergency will not change their protocol and they won’t begin holding more people – at least not immediately. 

That’s despite calls from some in law enforcement and leaders like City Commissioner Mingus Mapps, who have asked the county to keep more inmates locked up when Portland has experienced record violence. Members of the community have also expressed concern about holding people accountable who were arrested and released from jail, only to be arrested soon after for their involvement in another crime. 

The sheriff’s office says it is not responsible for managing holding or release decisions. Instead, these decisions are made based on an inmate’s regular court process. This includes being released on their own recognizance or a case being dismissed.

The jail plans to keep its utilization limited but expects it will likely increase bed use over time.

Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office officials said the decision to keep more beds empty to allow for social distancing during the pandemic was not a result of the federal health emergency. It was a decision made by Sheriff Mike Reese with input from partners like the district attorney, the Multnomah County chair and the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice. 

The Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office said keeping the limitations in place could help better protect the public and the inmates.

“The pandemic has given us an opportunity to rethink how we house adults in custody, how we utilize space within a controlled environment and provide services and programming,” said Chris Liedle from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office communications unit. 

Right now, by limiting utilization, Liedle said the sheriff’s office has a lot of control on the “front end.” That means they control who comes in and what charges are eligible for booking. 

Liedle said going back to utilizing nearly all the jail’s available beds, which is what the jail was doing before the pandemic, can pose safety challenges. 

When the jail hits 95% of its maximum capacity, it’s required to perform an emergency release. This could result in people who face significant charges being released back into the community. 

Instead, the jail has been limiting its bookings and working to accommodate more pre-trial releases since March 2020, which ensures it does not hit that 95% threshold. The decision to allow the jail to perform emergency releases when it reaches 95% of its capacity was made by the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners in 2018.

The last time an emergency population release occurred was in February 2020 when the jail released 52 people.

In spring 2020, early on in the pandemic, the district attorney’s office allowed the jail to release offenders who had two weeks or less on their sentences, to help get the jail population down as quickly as possible. This was a specific response to the pandemic and was coordinated between the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, the district attorney and the Oregon Judicial Department. 

They used information from state and local health officials to make their decision.

In normal emergency release situations, the sheriff’s office said the jail does not let people out who have been sentenced. The only people released when the jail beds are full are people who have not gone to trial. 

While it’s not explicitly part of the current policy, Liedle said one perk of continuing to limit how many people are booked in the jail is that it helps ensure there’s a bed open for anyone booked on a serious charge, like murder. 

Who’s getting booked?  

After putting initial limitations in place at the start of the pandemic, the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office expanded its booking criteria on April 23, 2021, to include the charges of reckless burning and second-degree criminal mischief. 

When it was announced, the sheriff’s office said this was a result of “the recent proliferation of attempts to set fire to objects and structures during demonstrations.” It also followed a burn ban the Multnomah County Fire Defense Board issued on April 19, 2021. 

In early 2022, the Portland Police Bureau asked the sheriff’s office to add certain firearm charges to be eligible for booking suspects in jail, based on public safety needs. At the time, the police bureau hoped it would help address the surge in gun violence.

The city went on to report 96 homicides in 2022, breaking the record set in 2021, when there were 90. 

Although it’s uncertain if the new jail booking charges played a role, the months with the highest number of shootings reported in 2022 were January and March. In March, there were 147 shootings reported. After that, the highest number of shootings reported in a month was 116 in July. 

More recently, during retail theft missions, Liedle said the sheriff’s office temporarily accepted the charges of second-degree theft and second-degree criminal trespass as bookable. They’ve done the same for street racing.  

Liedle said the sheriff’s office will continue to expand booking criteria as necessary. 

Corrections Facilities Deputy Chief Steve Alexander oversees jail operations and staffing and also believes jail utilization will continue to rise over time as the sheriff’s office resolves staffing shortages and as criminal cases work their way through the courts.  

“We are working with the Local Public Safety Coordinating Council and other agency partners to ensure as jail numbers increase, we are positioned to meet community safety needs now and into the future,” Alexander said. 

These are the charges that an officer or deputy in Multnomah County can currently book someone on, as of April 10: 

  • Any Class A, B or C felonies – examples include murder, assault, arson, sex crimes, possession of child pornography, extortion, aggravated theft, second-degree manslaughter, third-degree burglary, first-degree forgery and first-degree theft. 
  • Any “Person Class A Misdemeanor” 
  • Reckless Burning
  • Second-degree criminal mischief 
  • Unlawful possession of firearms 
  • Carrying of concealed weapons 
  • Pointing a firearm at another 
  • Unlawfully purchasing a firearm 
  • Driving under the influence of intoxicants
  • Reckless driving 
  • First-degree criminal trespass 
  • Second-degree criminal trespass 
  • Second-degree theft
  • Any offense subject to mandatory arrest under Oregon law 

Who determines if the jail’s utilization remains limited?

In March 2023, 1,405 people were booked in the Multnomah County Jail. That’s the most bookings the jail has had since before the pandemic began. It also released a total of 1,410 people in March.

Some of the most common reasons people are released from jail include: being released on their own recognizance before trial, court releases – where a judge releases them during the trial process, release as a result of a case being dismissed, defendants pay bail, or they reach their sentence release dates. 

Data from the Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office monthly jail report for March 2023 shows that suspects in jail on Class A felony charges on average spend at least twice the amount of time in jail as people with Class B felony charges.

Ultimately, the decision to limit the jail’s utilization and booking is made by Sheriff Nicole Morrisey O’Donnell who is listening to input from stakeholders like the District Attorney, the Multnomah County chair and the Department of Community Justice. 

Alexander said the sheriff’s office also considers the needs of partners, like the Portland Police Bureau and the Port of Portland, when determining which charges are eligible for booking. 

“We will continue to work with our agency partners to thoughtfully manage our jail operations to meet public safety and community needs,” Alexander said. 

He said local and state officials recognize communicable diseases such as COVID-19 and the flu are still concerning in a place where hundreds of people are housed. They’re working to ensure the people in custody are kept safe while they wait to appear in court or serve a sentence. 

Liedle said there are other limitations within the jail. For example, they can’t mix men and women and have to keep certain people, like high-profile murder suspects, away from other people in custody. 

“Having a higher ceiling allows for more housing options and keeps folks safe in custody,” Liedle said. 

The lowest point of the jail’s utilization was in August 2020, during the pandemic, when there were an average of 641 people in custody, about 57% of capacity.