A Benton County judge has ruled that pretrial inmates must be housed locally when there are jail beds available before considering housing them in a jail in The Dalles with which the county contracts.

Circuit Court Judge David Connell made the decision on Nov. 20. Since then, all pretrial inmates have been transported back to Benton County from the Northern Oregon Regional Correctional Facility (NORCOR) in The Dalles, and many have been released back into the community, Sheriff Scott Jackson said.

The county’s contract with NORCOR has been contentious since its inception in July. Many defense attorneys have requested and been granted court orders requiring their clients remain in Benton County until sentencing. Their argument is that NORCOR, which is a three-hour drive northeast of Corvallis, is too far for defense lawyers to adequately get to know clients and prepare cases for trial.

Connell, at the request of the county’s counsel, reviewed state statutes governing the detention of inmates in order to determine if the NORCOR contract was legal.

The judge decided the county has the legal right to enter into contracts for jail beds with nonadjoining counties, but only if all beds at the Benton County Jail are full and all beds in adjoining counties’ correctional facilities are full.

The judge offered a caveat, stating pretrial detainees can waive their right to be housed locally or in an adjoining county if they wish to be taken to NORCOR.

Defense attorney John Rich applauded the decision.

“It vindicates what we have been arguing since they started using NORCOR and reaffirms my position that clients should be held locally pretrial and NORCOR should be used for clients that have been sentenced to a term of local incarceration by the court,” Rich said.

County Counsel Vance Croney said he initiated the civil case in July because the county wanted clarification regarding the lawfulness of its contract with NORCOR.

“Clearly, Judge Connell’s decision was not the decision Benton County had hoped for, but we always respect the court’s decision,” Croney said.

Benton County and the sheriff were listed as plaintiffs in the case. The defendants were “All Electors, Freeholders, Taxpayers, and Other Interested Persons.” Croney said the summons and complaint in the case were published in the Gazette-Times for three consecutive weeks after being filed in court. When no respondents appeared in the case, Croney asked Connell in September to issue a default judgment asserting the county could legally house pretrial and sentenced inmates at NORCOR.

However, the judge stated the county’s proposed default judgment would request the court to make a conclusion that could be contrary to state law.

“As I see it, the county tried to pull a fast one and got caught by a vigilant judge who then set a hearing so that they could present their argument in court,” Rich said.

On Sept. 22, a hearing in the case took place in Connell’s courtroom, court records show. Rich said he was unaware of the hearing and that no one was present at the hearing to provide views contrary to the county’s arguments. The Gazette-Times did not attend the hearing. Connell took the issue under consideration and issued his ruling via a letter last month.

Croney said he intends to ask for clarification from the judge on whether Benton County is required to consider if beds are available at jails in adjoining counties when Benton County doesn’t have a contract with those counties to house prisoners.

He also said the county is considering whether to appeal the judge’s decision.

For the time being, Benton County pretrial inmates will be held in the local jail, the sheriff said. When space is an issue, defendants with less serious charges and limited or no criminal history will be released first.

Jackson did not expect the contract with NORCOR, which went into effect July 1, to become controversial. For 17 years, the county contracted with the nonadjoining Yamhill County for jail beds, he said. Benton County canceled that contract, as well as a contract with Lincoln County, when the NORCOR agreement went into effect. The county has a contract with Linn County for jail beds but it is only used when law enforcement officers there arrest someone wanted in Benton County, Jackson said.

The move to NORCOR was expected to save the county about $500,000 a year, Jackson said. The county can use up to 40 beds at NORCOR at a time.

Jackson said he is concerned about the number of pretrial defendants the Benton County Jail, which has a total of 40 beds, is being forced to release. He said the jail staff is being faced with “ugly decisions” about who to let go.

“I think the more that happens, we’re kind of buying time until something really tragic happens in the community,” the sheriff said.

Lillian Schrock covers public safety for the Gazette-Times. She may be reached at 541-758-9548 or lillian.schrock@lee.net. Follow her on Twitter at @LillieSchrock.