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Sheriff says $1.7 million can cut crime

Wed., April 20, 2005

Staking his job and his reputation on a promise to cut crime, Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk wants $1.7 million to hire extra jail employees so more criminals can be locked up.

Sterk, in a pitch to Spokane County commissioners Tuesday, pledged the crime rate would fall if the extra spending is approved.

“If it doesn’t happen, I guarantee you I’d give you my badge,” said Sterk, whose current four-year term expires next year.

The additional $1.7 million would pay for 31 extra jail employees by 2007.

“It’s a big number, and it scares me to bring it to you, but it’s modest in terms of what we need at the jail,” Sterk said.

He’s asking for 25 corrections officers, one sergeant, one lieutenant, three licensed practical nurses and one registered nurse. They would join the 207 county jail employees already on staff.

The countywide crime rate in 2003, the latest year for which complete statistics were available, was 60.3 serious offenses per 1,000 residents, according to the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

“Gentlemen, if we do this I can guarantee you we’re going to book more misdemeanants into the jail, and it’s going to reduce crime,” Sterk said. “Those people are committing hundreds of crimes for every time we get them.”

Sterk’s proposal to boost departmental spending comes at a time when many law enforcement agencies are struggling with spending cuts, and as some states are considering saving money by releasing prisoners early.

County commissioners were noncommital Tuesday, but used the request as an opportunity to revive the idea of boosting jail capacity by erecting tents and letting some prisoners serve out their time dealing with the elements.

“We need to say, ‘Guys, you’re going to summer camp,’ ” said Commissioner Todd Mielke.

Mielke said the tents should be set up April 1 to Nov. 1, and could house low-risk offenders who are now avoiding jail time because of a lack of space at either the jail or at Geiger Corrections Center.

That would send a message to criminals and the public that the county is serious about punishing those who commit not just felonies, but also property crimes, he said.

“My 10-year dream may come true,” said Commissioner Phil Harris of the tent camp idea.

He suggested the parking lot just north of the jail as another possible location.

“That could be turned into a compound for tents very easily,” he said.

Tent camps would require even more manpower to operate, said Sterk.

Both the additional jail employees or a possible tent camp would be short-term solutions, he added.

Neither would likely be enough to fulfill future jail requirements, Sterk explained. He wants the county to expand the jail at a ballpark cost of $47 million.

“We’re going to need 230 more beds – between Geiger and the jail – over the next three years,” Sterk said, adding that another 65 beds will be needed each year for the following seven years.

“If we start building today, it would take us five years,” he said.

Such a jail might better be moved outside the downtown area along with courtrooms, said Harris.

But Commissioner Mark Richard said doing that could boost the tag to “hundreds of millions” of dollars.

It’s unclear where funding for a jail expansion would come from, but Richard suggested a possible source for part of it might be the recently passed 0.1 percent sales tax for public safety and criminal justice.

Commissioners have yet to schedule a date for a final decision on Sterk’s spending request.

The jail’s $15.4 million 2005 budget includes $675,000 for overtime.

The Geiger Corrections Center, near the Spokane International Airport, is run separately by Director Leon Long. It houses offenders of less-serious crimes and has its own needs, Sterk said.

“He’s going to need staff, too,” he said.


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