In an effort to keep personnel safe, the Malheur County Jail adjusted its lodging rules. The jail will no longer accept individuals who are accused of low-level misdemeanor crimes. (The Enterprise/File).

VALE – In response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak the Malheur County Jail will no longer lodge people accused of low-level misdemeanor level crimes.

Individuals who commit more serious felonies will still be brought to jail, said Malheur County Undersheriff Travis Johnson.

“If they are not person-to-person crimes, we will cite and give a court date in lieu of arresting them and bringing them to jail,” said Johnson.

He said the new mandates are essential for the safety of jail inmates and personnel.

“If you consider the size of the agency, we have basically minimal, to slightly above minimal, staffing to run 24 hours. So, if we were to get the virus in here – and we know it spreads very quickly – we could potentially have a number of our staff out in a short amount of time,” Johnson said.

The jail can house 104 inmates. Monday, he said, there were between 40 and 45 inmates in the jail.

Johnson said people who commit felony crimes and are transported to the jail will be screened to “make sure they don’t have the virus.”

“The main thing is we will question them about any illness and then check temperatures,” he said. “We are asking them the obvious questions, like do you have a sore throat? A cough? Trouble breathing?”

Johnson said he didn’t know when the jail would revisit the new policy, which began in mid-March.

“We are holding our breath now trying to see what come of this,” said Johnson.

Local police said the new rules won’t change how they operate.

“We are triaging each case. If we can cite and release on certain things, we are encouraged to do that,” said Oregon State Police Lt. Mark Duncan.

Duncan said there will be no “free pass” for those who commit a crime.

“If someone is involved in domestic violence, homicide, vehicular manslaughter, any major person crimes, or they are a danger to themselves or society, yeah, we are going to lock them up,” he said.

Duncan said he understands why the jail issued new COVID-19 virus requirements.

“That (the jail) is a concrete box and you don’t want people to get sick. We have to make sure we are being mindful of circumstances,” he said.

Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero said the policy hasn’t forced his department to make widespread changes.

“I think the biggest issue is going to be the impact of all of this is what is to come when all of this is lifted. The backlog we are creating for the judicial system with all those cases sitting idle,” said Romero.

He emphasized that his department will continue to enforce laws and make arrests.

“You will still get sanctioned, it’s just a matter how we do it. We can’t ignore crime,” said Romero.

He said a citation, instead of a trip to the county jail, shouldn’t send the message crimes won’t be punished.

“You are still going to be held accountable, even if it is a deferred filing,” said Romero.

Duncan agreed.

“If you are a violent and drunk, you are going to jail,” he said.

Have a news tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

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