The Spokesman-Review

Opinion

Best Spokane County jail plan rethinks the system

Voters have rewarded politicians for the war on drugs, three-strikes laws, mandatory-minimum sentences, and crackdowns on drunken driving and domestic violence. But the “lock ’em up” sentiment carries with it a significant downside. It is expensive. Very expensive.

In the next year, Spokane County voters will hear plenty about that as the debate over a new jail heats up. The current lockup has about 200 more people than it was originally designed to hold, and the county’s overall population is projected to climb by 230,000 in the next 25 years. Meanwhile, the lease for the World War II-era Geiger corrections facility expires in 2013, and the Airport Board has indicated that it doesn’t want to renew it.

We need a new jail, but the cost is a stunner.

On Wednesday, Spokane County commissioners will begin taking public comments on the best place to expand the jail now that the top three choices have costs attached to them. After the site decision, commissioners will then try to figure out when to pop the financing question to voters.

The finalists from the original list of 10 sites are: the Spokane County campus, where the current jail resides; the Medical Lake interchange near Interstate 90; and the “gravel pit” on Russell Road and Sprague Avenue, near the Airway Heights Correctional Center and Spokane Raceway Park.

Nobody wants a jail nearby, so the commission can expect to hear plenty of those types of arguments. Indeed, during an earlier public comment period, community leaders from all areas of the county had similar reasons for why it would be best if it weren’t built in their backyards. And that included the Cowles Co., which owns The Spokesman-Review, and whose chairwoman, Betsy Cowles, voiced opposition to the near-downtown site. Common concerns are that property values would drop and future commerce would be imperiled.

Cost and flexibility

Fortunately, there are better metrics for decision makers than “not in my backyard,” namely cost and flexibility. The expansion of the jail isn’t just about building more capacity. It needs to be an overall exercise in remaking the criminal justice system so that it is more cost-efficient and financially sustainable. As Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says, a new jail with significant criminal justice reforms would last 25 years before it needed expanding. A new jail under the status quo would give the county 10 years.

So a robust array of drug and alcohol diversion programs, mental health intervention, efficient pretrial screening and streamlined court processes are vital.

The county has boosted the sales tax by 0.01 percent on six occasions and five of those increases were related to criminal justice in some way. If the County Commission places this request on the ballot, it will probably include another sales tax boost for maintenance and operation of the new jail. It would be much smarter for the community to rethink its position on crime and punishment, rather than periodically face these incremental tax hikes that do nothing to restructure the underlying cost drivers. Nothing makes that point better than the proposed price tags for jail expansion, which would be financed with a voter-approved bond.

Horizontal vs. vertical

The overall cost depends on whether the new jail has a vertical or horizontal design. Because the county campus site is limited to 2.3 acres, it must build a multistory tower and a parking garage, according to Essential Public Facilities documents. The total construction cost, including financing over 30 years, would be $265.7 million. Each of the two sites on the West Plains would occupy 40 acres and could be constructed for less than $230 million. A late push to find another way to configure the county campus would still need to beat that price tag.

At this point, it appears as if a horizontal orientation would provide more flexibility, because expansion could be done in 256-bed increments. Each additional pod would cost $21 million, which is much cheaper than erecting another tower on the county campus. Currently, construction costs for a horizontal site would be about $36 million cheaper. If expansion is needed beyond 2035, the cost advantages become much greater.

However, the operational costs per year for a horizontal site would be about $1.3 million more, because some services would be duplicated and transportation costs would increase.

It’s at this point that jail planners should consider the lessons learned by their colleagues in the 1960s and 1970s. Predicting future needs is highly speculative, as the consultants hired to assess the county’s jail needs note in their report. Planners back then woefully underestimated capacity needs because they could not predict the crackdowns on various drug crimes, domestic violence and drunken driving. Similarly, current planners need to factor in the possibility of the pendulum swinging in the other direction, with the demand for beds decreasing with the widespread acceptance of diversionary programs and alternative sentencing.

Demand would also decline if society could settle on a better upfront approach to dealing with mental illness, rather than letting afflicted persons languish in jail while cut off from Medicaid-financed treatments. Approximately one-third of people booked into the county jail are diagnosed with some form of mental illness. These changes could lessen operational costs, too.

Being realistic

Though the regular criminal justice players – law enforcement, attorneys, judges, bail and bonding businesses – would find the county campus to be more convenient, what the commissioners must be chiefly concerned with is a price tag that taxpayers will accept. For that reason, flexibility becomes a major component.

But taxpayers must also accept that while they might prefer being tough on criminals, they might not have the money to back it up. So they must do their part in lobbying for statutory changes that would help lower the incarceration rate and shorten the length of stays.

The county’s consultants have identified several areas where the county could pick up efficiencies without compromising public safety. The felony rearrest rate in Superior Court is two times the national average. Work release is underused. The county leans heavily on the sentencing option: 77 percent in District Court and 71 percent in Superior Court cases. David Bennett Consulting assessed the jail population and found that 71 percent of felony offenders were sentenced to jail. The national average is 28 percent.

The county has taken strides to rectify this by establishing drug and therapeutic mental health courts and alternative programs for domestic violence and drunken driving offenders. Pretrial services is another area in need of reform. Too often, those arrested are released because charges do not get filed within 72 hours. This leads to an inordinately high rearrest rate and missed opportunities to funnel people into the appropriate diversion programs. But recent layoffs in the prosecutor’s office have stymied progress in this area.

Long-term solution

With the help of David Bennett Consulting and Integrus Architecture, the county has produced jail designs that take into consideration all of the criminal justice reforms that need to occur. No matter where it’s built, the new jail would include a Community Corrections Center, which would house minor offenders who have been diverted to alternative programs. The goal is to cut down on the number of reoffenders through education and treatment.

If the county can focus on keeping those beds filled, it has a better chance of achieving a more satisfactory and cost-efficient criminal justice system. To that end, a jail with a horizontal configuration and greater flexibility for expansion gives the county the best chance to rebuild an entire system and save taxpayers some money.

We’ve been tough on crime for 30 years, and it’s proved to be tough on taxpayers. Now it’s time to get smart and think of jails as one piece of an integrated and efficient criminal justice system.

Associate editor Gary Crooks is a member of The Spokesman-Review’s editorial board. He can be reached at garyc@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5026.


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