News Seattle Doesn’t Need to Build a New Jail
posted by June 26 at 13:24 PMon
Back in 1999, King County released a study estimating that in ten years, the county’s inmate population would swell to around 4,500, maxing out the capacities at the King County Jail (KCJ) in downtown Seattle and the Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent. Consquently, every city in the county was informed that in 2012, their misdemeanor offenders would no longer be accepted at King County’s jails.
Because of the impending deadline, Seattle, Bellevue, Renton and other nearby cities have been scrambling to come up with a solution for a new jail site. There’s been talk of cities collaborating to build another regional jail, and Seattle has been looking at building its own facility at one of four sites around the city. However, this plan has drawn fire from neighborhood groups like Citizens Against Jails in North Seattle (CAJINS!), the Highland Park Action Committee and Greenwood Area Involved Neighbors, who understandably don’t want a jail in their backyard.
Despite the county’s upcoming deadline, Seattle may not need a new jail after all —because, as it turns out, the county’s 1999 study was just flat-out wrong about an impending prison population boom.
King County has reassessed its jail population numbers, and they’re not even close to the estimates given almost a decade ago.
The light gray bars show the county’s 1999 prison population projections, and the black bars show the current estimates. If those numbers prove accurate, the county will still have about 400 empty beds, more than enough to meet cities’ needs for the time being.
Right now, the county makes 330 beds available between both facilities to cities, which pay $108 per bed, and the state Department of Corrections also “rents” 215 beds from the county. But neither jail is anywhere close to full. About 400 of the nearly 1,700 beds at KCJ are empty—three of the facilities’ eleven floors are currently shut down for renovations—and the RJC has room for another 500 prisoners.
According to King County Jail’s spokesman, Major William Hayes, the county’s population projections have changed so drastically in the last decade because of diversion programs like drug court and work release. Although upcoming cuts to budget cuts to drug and mental health courts could increase the number of people going to jail instead of diversion programs, Hayes—who says he’s never seen a jail reach capacity in the 24 years he’s been with the county—says “we could handle quite a few more [inmates]…if we needed to.” However, Hayes also cautions that the jail population “can change overnight.”
Hayes says the county is open to discussing a contract extension with Seattle, an idea that’s also been getting a lot of support from at least one member of the King County Council.
Later next month, Seattle will finish up two feasibility studies and decide whether to build a jail with several Eastside cities, but don’t be surprised if the city and the county find a way to work things out.
Photo by Manuel W. via Flickr.