Washington's cities to scramble for jail space
King County plans to stop housing most misdemeanor offenders after 2012, when its jails are expected to be full. Cities must now think about building their own lockups.
Seattle Times staff reporter
King County jail officials are going to get picky about the types of criminals they lock up.
Starting in 2012, King County plans to no longer house most drunken drivers, prostitutes, small-scale drug users and other misdemeanor offenders, prompting cities south and east of Seattle to start planning to build new jails in their communities.
Officials in Snohomish, Pierce and Spokane counties may follow suit and keep misdemeanor offenders from being booked into their main county jails. Although King County's two jails in Seattle and Kent still have room for offenders, projections show the jails reaching full capacity in about a decade, said Claudia Balducci, the county's regional jail coordinator. King County's Seattle jail can hold 1,697 inmates; the Regional Justice Center in Kent has capacity for 1,457.
"We're planning into the future when the capacity will fill up," Balducci said.
Balducci said King County is required by law to house felony offenders. But, she added, cities are responsible for the misdemeanor offenders they've arrested — which has meant each city pays King County or other counties for misdemeanor jail services.
King County's planned ban on accepting misdemeanor offenders after 2012 doesn't include those arrested by the King County Sheriff's Office, because the sheriff's office and the jail are funded by the county.
Planning for the future
Many of the 36 cities that contract with King County for misdemeanor-offender housing are still waiting to see if the county will change its plans before the cities decide how to proceed.
Among the cities with the biggest stake in the county jail is Seattle, which last year spent $13.7 million housing misdemeanor offenders. According to a study, in 2005 more than 45 percent of all county jail misdemeanor bookings came from the City of Seattle.
Cities pay $197.23 to King County for each misdemeanor inmate booked into the jail. They then pay a daily fee of $103.17 per inmate.
Catherine Cornwall, senior policy analyst for the City of Seattle, said Seattle police are awaiting the results of a study into how King County plans to address its growing inmate population. The study, which is expected to be released in the fall, may result in recommendations on where misdemeanor offenders could be housed after 2012.
"We need to decide how to handle all our regional inmates over the next 20 years," Balducci said. "We are planning space options. Nobody intended that in 2012 we're going to let these people run the streets. We need to decide where they're going to be."
Eastside cities, including Bellevue, Kirkland and Redmond, are also waiting for the King County study. Diane Carlson, a Bellevue city administrator, said one option is for the Eastside cities to build their own 200-bed jail, or the Eastside could combine with Seattle and build a 632-bed facility.
The cities of Renton, Des Moines, Tukwila and Federal Way are on track to build a new South County misdemeanor jail, said Penny Bartley, jail manager for Renton. A site hasn't been selected, but planners hope it will have 500 beds and enough space to account for regional annexations and rising arrest rates, Bartley said. The 50-bed Renton Jail would close, she added.
The 52-bed Auburn Jail will be replaced by an almost-150-bed facility, said Auburn Police Chief Jim Kelly.
The city of Kent hasn't made any decision on whether it will renovate its own 110-bed jail — the third-largest adult detention center in the county — to make room for more inmates or join the South County regional facility, said Kent Police Chief Steve Strachan.
"That eventuality is driving a lot of heated discussions in every department in this area," Strachan said. "The smaller cities are in a tough position."
Keeping an eye on change
For years, most King County cities have used the Yakima County Jail to house misdemeanor offenders because the Eastern Washington facility offered more and cheaper bed space than the King County Jail, said Bartley, the Renton Jail commander. But that option will end in 2010 because Yakima is also struggling with overcrowding, she said.
Bartley said there is no plan to try to renegotiate a contract with Yakima because transporting offenders back and forth to court hearings before their release is expensive.
"The issue is we need to have local booking ability, because if somebody is arrested at 2 a.m., there's no place to take them if there's no local capacity. You can't take them to Yakima; you can't make police officers into taxicab drivers," she said.
Jail leaders in Snohomish, Pierce and Spokane counties are closely watching King County's plans to no longer house most misdemeanor offenders.
Snohomish County Jail Commander Jim Harms said his jail currently takes misdemeanor offenders from 19 cities, but if the facility is overcrowded, suspects will be booked and automatically released.
Harms said he sees the move for county jails to stop taking misdemeanor suspects "happening not only in Snohomish County, but across the state."
Harms said the Snohomish County Jail could stop taking misdemeanor offenders from all 19 cities it contracts with as soon as 2015. Just like in King County, this would not impact Snohomish County Sheriff's Office misdemeanor bookings, because it is also a county-run agency.
Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer said that they've already stopped taking many misdemeanor offenders at the Pierce County Jail, to make sure inmates don't have to sleep on the floor. The jail population is already 80 percent felony offenders, he said.
"We hope the day doesn't come that we'll have to stop taking misdemeanors," he said.
Troyer said the jail always books domestic-violence suspects.
Sgt. Dave Reagan of the Spokane County Sheriff's Office said that overcrowding has already forced nearly half of their jail population to be housed at a satellite jail.
"Our current jail can't be modified and there are studies under way to determine whether it would be most feasible to expand the jail outward or construct a new jail on the new site," Reagan said. "We are between a rock and a hard place."
Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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