Public officials from Asotin County to Olympia to Washington, D.C., are looking to Pend Oreille County for a way to put teeth into juvenile justice without taking a big bite out of taxpayers’ wallets.
U.S. Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane, and the entire 7th District state legislative delegation are to tour the Pend Oreille County’s innovative new juvenile jail today. On Friday, the visitors were two Asotin County commissioners and that county’s Juvenile Department director and undersheriff.
Pend Oreille County has built three cells for a fraction of the cost of standard juvenile detention centers. Spokane County asked voters to cough up $11 million for 48 cells - more than $229,000 per cell.
Pend Oreille paid only about $3,300 per cell.
The enormous saving was achieved by the design: metal cages were built in a room in a county-owned industrial building. Cell doors will remain unlocked most of the time so inmates can go to the restroom, but a guard will block the exit from the room.
Heavy metal screen ceilings and windows allow in light from ordinary fluorescent lights and ventilation from central air conditioning. Each room has a metal bunk and a metal desk welded into a corner.
“This almost seems too simple,” said Pend Oreille County Sheriff Doug Malby, who came up with the idea for what he calls Hotel California.
Asotin County Commissioner Don Scheibe worried that despondent youths might find a way to hang themselves from the mesh ceilings. But Malby said inmates won’t have cords small enough to get through the mesh and most will be shortterm prisoners who are unlikely to be suicidal.
“But, let’s face it,” he said, “if you want to do yourself in, you can do it in any facility. You can do it on a sink.”
Juveniles will be encouraged to read and do schoolwork. There will be no radios, TVs or video games.
The remarkably low-tech facility is scheduled to open March 3. Asotin County leaders were impressed that it would show juveniles they can’t escape justice just because the county can’t afford to send them to a full-service juveniledetention center.
“We only have so much money and we have to take the serious cases first,” commissioner Scheibe said. “The rest of them are laughing at us.
“If a kid has done wrong, he should know there is a penalty. If you catch them on the minor things, maybe they won’t go on to the major ones.”
Pend Oreille and many other Eastern Washington counties have no place to send low- and mediumgrade juvenile offenders. Asotin County can place them in the Nez Perce County juvenile detention facility in Lewiston at a cost of $175-per-day per inmate.
That’s about twice as much as Pend Oreille County will pay to operate its new juvenile jail. Malby said the center will cost about $245 a day to operate, most it wages for corrections officers.
At one inmate per cell, the cost will be about $82 per inmate. If each cell has the two inmates allowed, that cost will be halved.
The county will avoid education and counseling costs by locking up juveniles only 48 hours at a time on weekends or summer weekdays when school is not in session. A 30-day sentence, the maximum for the facility, would require 15 weekends to complete.