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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Oregon county releases 39 inmates amid budget cuts

Josephine County Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Erin Maue speaks to reporters Wednesday outside the entrance to the jail in Grants Pass, Ore., following the release of 39 inmates due to a budget crunch. (Associated Press)
Jeff Barnard Associated Press

GRANTS PASS, Ore. – Dozens of inmates ran whooping from a small town jail into the sunshine Wednesday after a cash-strapped county in Oregon’s timber region was forced to release them amid budget cuts.

The sheriff’s office released 39 inmates, dropping the population at the jail in Grants Pass to 60 – half of them federal prisoners held on contract.

“We had no other alternative based on our funding predicament,” said Josephine County Undersheriff Don Fasching. “We are very concerned for public safety.”

About half of those released will finish their sentences on work crews. The rest were waiting for trial.

The most common charges were for drug crimes, minor assaults, burglary, identity theft and probation violations.

“We did keep the worst of the worst” – those facing charges for crimes that carry mandatory prison sentences – said Jail Commander Vicki Smith.

Among the inmates released was one incarcerated for failing to register as a sex offender, and another accused of agreeing to sex for money with a 14-year-old girl offered by her boyfriend online.

The sheriff’s office was forced to cut staffing to levels not seen since 1991 after voters emphatically turned down a $12 million levy to plug a gap left by the expiration of federal timber subsidies. Since then, applications for concealed weapons permits have skyrocketed, many taken by people concerned that the sheriff’s cuts will lead to a rise in crime.

Tammy Behrle, who lives alone in the woods and has no computer to check the sheriff’s office website for information on the inmates being released, showed up to take photos of them so she would know who to look out for on the street.

“I put a gun on layaway – a .38 Special – and I’ll get a permit when I get the training,” she said. “This thing can go any which way but loose.”

Angelina Banachowicz arrived at the jail to pick up her boyfriend, a probation violator awaiting trial on a minor assault, after her daughter heard about the releases on TV.

“He’s still going to do his time,” she said. “But we’re excited he’ll be with his kids and his family.”

The lower staffing levels mean that only 10 jail beds will be available for someone arrested for a crime, forcing police to cite and release most people, Fasching said. The more serious offenders already occupied 20 beds.