Matrix Drama Plays Out Daily at Jail

Lane County Commissioners have decided to wait until fall to ask voters to approve a local income tax to help pay for public safety. They will in the months ahead educate the public about the need. How will they do that and not paralyze citizens with fear or leave them so dispirited that they don’t vote. Help from civic-minded media partners can go a long way.

The jail is overcrowded most nights, requiring criminals to be released early. In return for their freedom, they sign a sheet promising to return for their punishment later. Often they don’t. Their absence is then duly noted and added to their rap sheet. Failure to appear in court for a felony sentencing is itself a felony. “Failure to Appear” is the most common charge the grand jury considers day in and day out.

This used to be called the matrix system. Now they call it “capacity-based release.” Frustrated law enforcement personnel have their own term. They call it “catch and release.”

Whatever its name, criminals spill onto our streets every night, denied a bed behind bars. Often they have no home to go to or no reason to stay in Eugene. That might sound good, if they leave the area, except that many other towns in Oregon have a similar situation. It’s as if the state is playing “Hearts” with a roaming group of criminals, each town discarding to the left in a large circle.

Who gets released? It’s calculated by a point system. The worse the offense, the higher points. The more frequent the visits, the higher the points. In this way, it’s exactly like Saturday Market on a busy summer weekend. The vendors with the most accumulated points get their space assignments first, until all the spaces are doled out. Those without enough points are sent home. But they have homes.

Do offenders with the most points get the corner cell with feng-shui-friendly lighting? Don’t be cynical. And no, they don’t get extra desserts either. Just desserts are in short supply these days.

Criminals often know the system better than taxpayers do. They know that for property crimes, they’ll usually be caught and released, especially on the weekends. They know which nights the jails are fullest and which towns up and down I-5 make the best destinations.

Citizens could find out more if they wanted. They could call the jail or the courts each evening and ask how many capacity-based releases occurred last night.

It would be better, though, if the commissioners set up a message phone and Web site to give out this information daily. Best of all would be if all four television news stations and this newspaper made an agreement for the next nine months to announce or publish that number on a daily basis.

The daily number of capacity-based releases is a simple number to report, easier than the winning lottery combinations, and more important to the life of our community. It’s an everyday occurrence, so it doesn’t quite fit the model of news reporting we most prefer. So this is some outside-the-box thinking about how many people today should be inside-the-box but aren’t.

The cumulative impact of these numbers reported daily will have a greater and more lasting effect on people than the occasional, heart-rending tragedy traced to somebody who was released from jail but shouldn’t have been.

Voters must learn about the danger their vote in November may attract or deter. Learning about it a little at a time allows people to take in the information without panic, so when the time comes, they will do the right thing.

The lottery-number model is fitting for this piece of information. Because that is in fact what we’re doing every night we release criminals prematurely from the jail. Gambling.