Urban Politics #266: Does Seattle Need to Build a New Jail?

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In last week’s Council Budget Committee of the Whole, I presented a proposal that would help the City determine whether we truly need to build a new jail.  I believe we need to examine the inevitability of needing a new seven-acre facility, estimated at $110 million to build and about $19 million a year to operate and proposed to a) either be sited in a Seattle neighborhood and operated by the City or b) sited in King County suburban city and jointly operated .


The City’s contract with King County for jail space expires in 2012 and without a contract with the County, the City has no place to jail arrested misdemeanants.  For this reason, 4.5 million dollars of next year’s city budget have been dedicated to siting a new jail which the City determines could be built by the end of 2013.

In addition, the King County Prosecutor, in response to impending budget reductions, is offering many drug defendants a reduced plea to a misdemeanor, after which the defendant will have no requirement to, and no assistance to, get treatment or any other intervention that would lessen the likelihood of future criminal conduct. I prefer the approach described below that continues to use the threat of incarceration to entice offenders into treatment programs.


My proposal would require an evaluation of how arrests and jail bookings could be reduced if the Seattle Police Department changed its approach to enforcing low-level felony drug violations (offenses involving marijuana or less than ten grams of other illegal drugs). Here are some of the questions I proposed that this evaluation consider:

If some number of violations could be addressed through referrals to appropriate treatment and services, what impact would be seen on the need for jail beds?  What types of treatment and services would be needed; at what cost?  Would there be impacts to public safety; if so, what?  Could these alternatives to criminal prosecution of low-level drug felonies be established in such a manner to ensure long-term access to King County jail space adequate to accommodate all Seattle misdemeanants?

My proposal directs the Office of Management and Planning to coordinate an effort using the resources and problem-solving abilities of community-based groups to address these questions and provide to the Council an assessment of whether a different approach to enforcing certain crimes could eliminate the need for a new jail.

One such approach that has been very effective is a model that uses a pre-arrest prevention approach.  In this model, SPD offers a suspect an alternative to being booked into jail: going immediately instead to an intake center for the law enforcement diversion program.  A preliminary assessment of the 125 participants in this program to date shows that although they have an average of 7.6 arrests and 2.7 convictions by the time they enter the program (average age of 25), after more than a year the non-recidivism rate was 82%.  Here you can read more about how the diversion program works.

Last night (11/12/08) the proponents of this model spoke to about 150 members of the Belltown Community Council.  Some community leaders are interested in exploring submitting an application for about $1 million in new money in a fund administered by King County so that this model can be brought to Belltown.

The groups that I hope can help the Council and Executive to determine whether we can eliminate the need for a new jail include the King County Bar Association, the Urban League, citizen representatives of the Precinct Advisory Councils, the ACLU and the public defenders. The government agencies would include the Seattle Police Department, the Human Services Department, the Seattle Municipal Court, and the City Attorney’s office.  Once assembled, this group would need also to invite representatives from the King County Executive, the King County Council, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office to join this effort because a critical element to these deliberations is whether King County would consider re-opening a discussion about extending the City’s contract for use of the King County Jail.

A budget proviso is a mechanism that restricts spending by a city department until some pre-set condition is completed by it. As a way to ensure this work is done thoroughly, I want the City Council to attach a proviso to a portion of the $4.5 million in the 2009 City Budget. The City Budget Office says that the project will have at least $2 million of 2009 funds available (plus any amount the City carries over from 2008) to fund the environmental assessments on the potential sites Seattle is considering and any other planning work that needs to be done in the first half of 2009.  Thus a proviso of $2 million dollars should not stop the city from future jail planning while this work is done, but it will ensure that it’s done. Given that the Council has not always received requested information from the Executive departments in a timely fashion, the proviso assures the Council that it will in this instance.

The Mayor does not support the proviso because Seattle has established a strong regional collaboration with some of our suburban cities in working toward a common jail site and this proviso may give them the impression that Seattle may not be a reliable partner in that pursuit. However, the proviso is constructed in a way to allow Seattle to continue to work with these cities while determining if a jail is needed of if a smaller one could suffice. Certainly if it is found that a smaller jail is required, with lower construction and maintenance costs, then all cities could benefit from this work.


An approach like this could accomplish 4 things:

  1. Mitigate the possible negative impact on public safety and quality of life in our neighborhoods that may result from the King County Prosecutor’s decision to reduce many felony drug charges to misdemeanors;
  2. Considerably improve the County budget picture by decreasing criminal justice system utilization;
  3. Help us determine whether we need to build a new jail – which could free up another $2.5 million dollars in the City budget mid-year; and
  4. Help offenders to make positive changes in their lives by removing obstacles to a better life for participants, rather than creating new barriers and at a fraction of what it costs to arrest, book, prosecute and convict the participants of low-level drug crimes.

Here is an editorial from this week’s Seattle P.I. supporting my efforts.

The Council will be voting on this budget action on Monday morning, November 17.

Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current public policy developments and personal experiences with the intent of helping citizens shape Seattle’s future.


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