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Base Decision On Honest Numbers

Mon., June 23, 1997

Spokane County’s 20-year-old juvenile detention facility was designed to house 44 offenders. By fudging on accepted standards, officials can accommodate 65.

With the creative use of holding cells and day room space, the population has recently been as high as 67. At the beginning of June, newly sentenced juveniles were being given “report dates” in July.

Whatever message this situation sends to young lawbreakers, it’s not one of accountability.

To the delight of judges and juvenile detention officials, Spokane County commissioners recently took steps to handle 17 more kids coming through the system in Spokane County.

However, while the commissioners gave the detention system needed breathing room, they have not yet reached a long-term decision about expanding the existing facility.

For several years, the county’s Superior Court judges have pushed in vain for a $1.8 million, 24-bed expansion that they say would be both cost-effective and compatible with the system’s purposes. Funding would come from a one-tenth of a cent local sales tax approved by voters in 1995 to build jails. That also is what the commissioners will use for the newly provided 17 beds. Nine are already in place but are occupied by state prisoners under a $348,210-a-year contract which the county will terminate. The other eight beds will be obtained by converting existing shower rooms into four two-bed cells.

But this is only an interim solution.

In the meantime, commissioners are waiting for July 15, when they will find out the cost of leasing space at Martin Hall, a 52-bed juvenile detention facility being built at Medical Lake by a consortium of nine Eastern Washington counties. Spokane County, a member of the consortium, already has contracted to use five of those beds but is considering more. Since such a decision would make the expansion less likely, it makes the judges nervous, with good reason. At Martin Hall, Spokane County will have only one of nine votes in the ruling consortium, while it would have full control over its own facility.

Because of its location, Martin Hall poses transportation and logistical costs that a next-door facility doesn’t incur. Alternative sentencing options used in lieu of confining low-risk offenders require a measure of continuity. That would be interrupted in a remote detention facility with personnel who are are unfamiliar with the procedures.

For some time, the judges have offered figures supporting expansion. One Seattle consultant estimated it would be $87,000 a year cheaper than leasing more beds at Martin Hall.

Skeptical commissioners now have ordered an in-house assessment of their own.

There is the uneasy potential here for an accounting war, for dueling spreadsheets. Spokane County residents deserve an honest comparison that focuses on the relative costs of adding new detention space, not one that rearranges current fixed costs to reach a preordained outcome.

So far, the judges have made a strong case, fiscally as well as philosophically. Unless the commissioners’ study clearly refutes them, the expansion plan should move smartly ahead.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Doug Floyd/For the editorial board

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