Urban Politics #275: Does Seattle Need to Build a New Jail? – Part Two

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By City Councilmember Nick Licata.

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.



You may remember that last November, Councilmember Tim Burgess and I, using slightly different approaches, convinced the Council to embark upon a project to newly assess whether the City’s use of jail beds can be reduced by adopting a more treatment-focused approach toward the enforcement of certain lower level drug offenses. The City has begun this project. The preliminary work done thus far supports the conviction I had last fall that we need to question the inevitability of needing a new seven-acre facility, estimated at $110 million to build and about $19 million a year to operate.


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 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.

Over the last ten years, there has been a 40% reduction in the Seattle misdemeanor jail population. Among other things, the success of alternatives to incarceration programs in Seattle Municipal Court is responsible for these decreases. Would additional alternative models of enforcement that rely less on jails and more on alternative responses further reduce rates of incarceration, enhance public safety, and improve the long-term outcomes for offenders? It’s a question that I am glad that we are asking.


The Council has asked our central staff to advise us by this summer whether there is reason to re-evaluate the need for a new jail facility. To advise staff, I sponsored a resolution creating a Jail Capacity Advisory Group, including community members with expertise in criminal justice policy, and King County analysts and policy makers, along with City and County officials. The Advisory Group will meet monthly in sessions that are open to the public. They have met twice to date. There will be regular reports on the progress of the effort at the City Council’s Public Safety committee meetings.

The Advisory Group includes representatives of the King County Bar Association, the ACLU, public defense agencies, and a citizen representative of the West Precinct Advisory Council. The government agencies participating include the Seattle Police Department, the Human Services Department, the Office of Housing, the Seattle Municipal Court, the City Attorney’s office, the King County Executive, the King County Council, King County Superior Court, and the King County Prosecutor’s Office. The Council had considerable debate about whether this advisory group should incorporate community public policy leaders and King County officials. It is already clear that including those perspectives will advance the conversation so that, if it is possible to avoid building another jail, we are in a position to seize that chance. A critical element to these deliberations is whether King County would consider further extension of the City’s contract for use of the King County Jail. The participation of King County officials in this effort is a helpful signal that there may be common interests on either side of James Street.


Thus far, the advisory group has determined the following:

  • There have been budget-driven changes to King County’s approach to felony prosecutions that will result in a future reduction in King County’s jail utilization. Even before this change, there was a recent drop in the actual jail population of about 5.7%.
  • The County Council has called for a reopening of negotiations with the cities in King County to extend the current jail services contract by at least two years, to December 31, 2014. Those negotiations are underway.
  • The jail bedspace projections from a 2006 report are significantly higher than we are actually experiencing and King County is now revising projections for how much jail capacity the County will need.
  • The Kent Regional Justice Center will open an expanded facility in 2015, thus further relieving the space crunch at the King County Jail.
  • Last week the King County Prosecutor and Sheriff called for the development of a jail alternative for non-violent mentally ill people who are picked up by police.

The advisory group discussed last week that, if Seattle could provide a policy-based reason for King County to anticipate that the recent decrease in jail bookings would be sustainable (not a one-time drop), it might be feasible for the County to guarantee enough space to Seattle that it would obviate the pressure for a Municipal Jail.

There is $5.625 million of debt issued for the proposed jail in the 2009-2010 City Budget. In 2009 there is an additional $152,000 and an additional $421,000 in 2010 in general fund dollars earmarked to pay for the debt service. City policy requires that debt financing be used only for capital projects. If we were to determine this year that we could avoid building a jail we then could either a) reprogram what is unspent of the $5.625 million of debt funds to another capital project, thus still owing the $573,000 in debt service, or b) retire the unspent debt, thus conceivably saving some portion of the $573,000 in general funds and use those funds for another purpose. In either event, I would welcome learning this year that we could avoid another approximately $100 million dollars in debt for the next 25 years and approximately $400,000 in debt service being paid out of our general fund every year for the next 25 years.


Seattle will still have to continue its work with the suburban cities on how to build a jail if one is needed, while continuing to scrutinizing whether a jail is needed or if a smaller one than currently planned could suffice. If it determined through the work of Seattle’s Jail Capacity Advisory Group that a smaller jail is required, with lower construction and maintenance costs, then all cities could benefit from the process that I and other of my colleagues launched last fall. Here is an editorial from last year’s Seattle P.I. supporting these efforts:
A New Jail: Shaky finances, seattlepi.com, November 10, 2008

More information:

Current jail statistics
Planning efforts to build a new jail

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