Monday, May 20, 2013

Judgment calls and early jail releases

Alex Pajunas -- Daily Astorian
There has been an unusual burst of violent crime in Clatsop County in the last few months. Family members shooting other family members. Two cases of men returning -- after being jailed and released -- to the place they had burgled, and then being shot -- with legal justification -- by the victims.

The worst case involves Mark Beebout. He was a convicted sex offender (in Shasta County, California) who came to Astoria in 2011 and failed to register as a sex offender, as required by law. Beebout was convicted in Clatsop County of this lower-level felony in 2012. He was put on probation with a 14-month prison sentence hanging over his head if he did things that would cause a judge to revoke his probation.

He did some of those things.

At the first court appearance I asked for and received an "exclusion" from the jail matrix that determines who gets released, so Beebout was put in jail awaiting a late May probation hearing. There was a second court appearance before the probation hearing, during which Beebout was ordered held without bail but was not excluded from the jail matrix.

And then, 8 days before Beebout's scheduled probation hearing, at which time he most likely would have been given 14 months in prison, Beebout was "force matrix released" because there was no jail space to hold him.

Over the next several weeks Beebout murdered two young women, one of them only 15 years of age.

There was justifiable outrage.

Even more recently, Bruce Rogers was shot to death after he tried to force his way into the home of an ex, whom he was threatening to kill. He had recently been charged with a similar crime and had also been force matrix released despite a request by me to exclude him.

I certainly understand why people are incensed.

I have deliberately avoided pointing fingers because as I've said -- and sincerely believe -- this is a systems problem. There are several parts to the system: police officers who arrest offenders (and who have the least say about who stays in jail), probation officers, jail staff, the District Attorneys office, and the judges. Clatsop County used to have a "release officer" who investigated and made recommendations to the court about whether or not somebody was a good risk for release. Release officers are usually employed by the state -- meaning the courts -- but sometimes by the counties. Clatsop County funded the position for a while after the State cut funding for the position, but has since eliminated the position as well.

These are judgment calls. I think I've been pretty good -- or maybe just lucky -- at making the right call in my recommendations. But I have no doubt that one day a felon I have recommended for release is going to go out and commit a really serious violent crime. We use our best judgment, but we are always factoring in the elephant in the room: The Clatsop County jail is capped at 60 beds, no matter what.

Early release of re-offending criminals is a problem that really can't be corrected until Clatsop County has about three times the number of jail beds it has now.

Some online comments to a Daily Astorian story about this issue have accused me of "blaming the voters" for not passing a jail bond. But that's not what I've said. We desperately do need to expand the jail, but those of us "selling" the jail bond issue have clearly failed to make our case to the voters.

The courts are open to the public. I strongly encourage anyone interested in this serious issue to come to the Courthouse at 1:15 pm any weekday. Most days you'll find me there, advising the judge about a defendant's record and making a recommendation as to whether he or she should be released. If I don't have another court appearance, I can hang around and answer your questions. Or you can post them here.

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