April 24, 2012 in Opinion

Editorial: County needs immediate solution to jail problem

The Spokesman-Review
 

The Spokesman-Review Editorial Board

Members of The Spokesman-Review editorial board help to determine The Spokesman-Review's position on issues of interest to the Inland Northwest. Board members are:

Spokane County and the city of Spokane are negotiating an end of sentence for the Geiger Corrections Center. Time served sounds about right.

But a quick end will renew pressures on the county to get a new jail bond issue on the ballot, perhaps as soon as this November.

Built as U.S. Air Force barracks in the late 1950s, Geiger was never intended to house inmates. It was remodeled in 1979 for $1.2 million to accommodate 144 work-release prisoners from the county-city jail and 50 from the state penitentiary at Walla Walla.

Over the years, Geiger became whatever was needed, and whatever paid. The state work-release inmates were bounced in 1987 because the federal government offered more money for housing of minimum-security inmates, including women. Since the Spokane County Jail began to exceed capacity in the late 1990s, and the federal officials sought more space, the number of beds has increased steadily to more than 800.

But, as early as 1994, the city began to grouse as the cost of housing its prisoners quadrupled to $36 per day. Benton County is offering a rate of $56 per day now, and the city wants in.

The going rate at Geiger has risen to about $130 per day, which includes health care. Drugs for county inmates are a tremendous expense. But misdemeanor violators like those incarcerated for the city are seldom in custody long enough to incur such expenses.

A contract with Benton County requiring a commitment for a minimum 50 prisoners a day, space the city may not need initially, is not yet ready to be taken to the City Council for approval, but estimated annual savings are expected to start at $500,000 and go up from there.

Good for the city, bad for the county.

Losing the city prisoners and the $2 million in fees they generate will make Geiger, already a maintenance problem, too expensive to operate. Their overnight departure would be extremely disruptive.

Monday, County Commissioner Todd Mielke and Spokane Mayor David Condon said they are looking for ways to make the transition as smooth as possible. That’s a good idea and a discussion that should continue as the county searches for the magic formula that will match inmates to beds, and beds to a financial plan acceptable to voters.

When Geiger closes, the county will need to find jail space for 200 to 250 of its own inmates. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said he, too, is looking at Benton County as an alternative. But that is not a long-term solution – Benton County will eventually need those beds – and construction of a new jail here will take as long as five years.

Because a site near the Medical Lake interchange might draw a legal challenge, the county is looking at a potential site around Spokane International Airport. There is not much time to formulate a plan that can go on the ballot in November and get the two-thirds majority required.

Meanwhile, the Spokane County Jail is so crowded, minor offenders are not even booked during the weekend. Alternatives to incarceration have alleviated some of the pressure, but when Geiger closes, other solutions will be needed as soon as possible.


There are 10 comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email