Marion County Jail adding beds, staff to the tune of $2 million annually

County officials next year will upsize the often-full Marion County Jail to fit dozens more inmates, hiring 15 more employees to run the expanded facility.

The Marion County Sheriff’s Office, which must operate the jail under state law, will reopen a unit that’s been closed for over a decade to put in 55 new beds, bringing the jail’s capacity to 470. The expansion comes with a nearly $2 million annual price tag.

County officials for years have floated the idea to reopen the jail’s “G-Pod” after it closed in 2011 due to budget cuts, according to Sgt. Jeremy Landers, sheriff’s office spokesman.

The expansion intended to help lighten overcrowding at the jail, which is regularly operating at capacity and currently only able to lodge people facing the most serious of charges.

Since 2019, Landers said the average length of stay for people in custody more than doubled from 12 days to 25 days in 2021.

A study of three U.S. counties published in January by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College found the average time people spent in jails increased from 2014 to 2019, largely driven by three factors. It rose for people with bail set above $5,000, people ages 18 to 24, and people lodged at the jail for a violent felony.

Landers said court proceedings slowing down during the pandemic has contributed to the longer stays at the Salem jail.

“In Marion County we were able to work with the courts, district attorney’s office, and public defender’s office to find creative solutions to continuing to move cases forward during COVID restrictions,” he said in an email. “Creative solutions, such as using the Grand Theatre as a temporary courtroom worked well for many proceedings, however, those strategies did not completely mitigate restrictions which greatly limited the capacity for jury trials. An additional approach supported by the courts was to hold settlement conferences inside the jail which also helped reduce the number of people awaiting trial.”

The expansion will cost the county about $1.93 million for annual ongoing operational expenses. The money will come from the general fund, which pays for most routine county services including public safety, justice court, assessment and taxation, county clerk and treasury, and is largely funded through property taxes.

The bulk of the cost to open the new beds is personnel, totaling about $1.586 million for salaries, wages and fringe benefits. The next-largest costs are about $179,200 for contracted services, $77,400 for supplies and $62,600 for facilities, according to the county’s budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year. The county’s Board of Commissioners signed off on that budget June 22.

The sheriff’s office next year will add 15 new positions to work in the section of the jail that’s being reopened — two sergeants, six deputies, six facility security aides and one licensed practical nurse, Landers said.

County officials expect the new beds will open June 2023 after the sheriff’s office recruits new staff and conducts physical and psychological testing, background checks and training, Undersheriff Jeff Wood said at a May 18 budget meeting.

“Our jail beds are a vital and necessary part of the greater criminal justice consortium, and while that resource is necessary, simple expansion won’t solve everything,”  Wood said in an email to Salem Reporter. “It will also require balanced resources, as well as a timely process through the entire system.”

That means people being prosecuted and cases coming to fruition, Wood told county officials at the budget meeting, but “high-level cases” often stall that process.

“I’d be the first to say county jails, not just in Marion County but throughout the state and the nation, are not designed for long-term incarceration. That is by design because we are a pretrial facility,” he said at the meeting.

The sheriff’s office is still taking applications for multiple positions related to the jail expansion as well as openings in the agency’s community corrections and enforcement divisions.

Landers said they are seeing fewer applicants for many open positions given the challenging labor market.

“We’ve been fortunate to be able to continue to locate and find well qualified people to join the Sheriff’s Office, but recognize recruitment is something we have to remain focused on and work at continually,” he said.

The number of people being held while awaiting trial — as opposed to serving time — varies by day. On Friday, those being held pretrial were about 89.1% of people in custody at the the jail, located at 4000 Aumsville Hwy S.E. in Salem.

With much of west Salem outside Marion County lines, many who are arrested there are taken to Polk County Jail.

The Dallas facility by contrast is not overcrowded, according to Polk County Sheriff Mark Garton.

“Our jail is set up completely different,” he said.

Marion County Jail uses direct supervision where corrections officers are always present in the areas people are housed and assigned there for their entire shift, while Polk County uses indirect supervision, meaning staff are stationed in a block of about 20 cells, but in a common area outside the cells. 

“Neither are bad, they just operate different and depending on when the jail was built may determine what type of supervision is in the jail,” Garton said.

Polk County Jail had 195 beds and around 100 people in custody on July 19. It has 30 staff consisting of civilians, deputies and supervisors who operate the jail and cover all court-related duties such as transporting people in custody and getting them to court.

“We don’t release people unless the judge says to, so we are different than Marion County,” he said.

Since 2000, the Marion County Board of Commissioners has established a capacity management plan to maintain adequate standards in the county jail, according to an agenda item. In determining who is lodged at the jail, the Sheriff’s Office uses a “Public Safety Checklist” to assess the likelihood someone will be arrested again for a person or property crime based on factors like age, gender, current crime, domestic violence, past arrests and prior incarceration.

Commissioners in September approved a resolution making changes to the plan, including a new scoring criteria for people in custody. Under the new criteria, those with felony charges or convictions of “person crimes,” like assault or kidnapping are more likely to be held in jail.

Landers said the plan will need to be updated to reflect the new beds at the jail, but the sheriff’s office doesn’t expect other changes to the plan. 

This story was updated Friday after the Marion County Sheriff’s Office corrected the number originally provided for people being held pretrial at the jail.

Contact reporter Ardeshir Tabrizian: [email protected] or 503-929-3053.

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Ardeshir Tabrizian has covered criminal justice and housing for Salem Reporter since September 2021. As an Oregon native, his award-winning watchdog journalism has traversed the state. He has done reporting for The Oregonian, Eugene Weekly and Malheur Enterprise.