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Fri., March 22, 2013, midnight

Editorial: Innovation necessary to find jail solution

The jail population is up. The jail population is down.

The city and county saved $2 million on jail expenses last year, yet the search continues for an alternative to a potential $200 million levy to finance a new community corrections facility.

Lock ’em up and forget ’em is not among the options. Too expensive.

The news Monday was typically contradictory. Thanks to more treatment and counseling programs, special courts, and other options to full-time incarceration, the costs of running the jail and Geiger Corrections Center fell. And the $1 million the city saved last year followed the $700,000 saved in 2011.

The city last spring threatened to take its inmate business elsewhere, all the way to Benton County, which was offering much cheaper prisoner housing than Spokane County. But losing support from the city put the county’s capacity jail operations in jeopardy. The city and county reconciled.

But, also Monday, we learned the jailed population is cresting again, to about 900, and that despite the release of 30 to avoid overcrowding.

Alternatives so far have held long-term growth of the jail population in check – a 2007 report projected the county will need as many as 2,600 beds by 2035 – but Geiger is a dangerous former barracks, and the downtown jail has already been remodeled to hold 600, not the 462 it was built for 30 years ago.

Yet, recently it has housed 700.

The solution for the future had seemed to be a new $200 million facility near the Medical Lake interchange off Interstate 90, but no county or city official has much of a stomach for taking that proposal to the voters. Attention has shifted to other sites, including one at Spokane International Airport.

But the key to making any plan work is shaving enough off current and future costs, not just at the jails, but from arrest to release, with the savings dedicated to debt service. To that end, the city and county last fall formed a Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission that is looking for ways to streamline operations, and make more use of programs that open beds needlessly occupied by individuals who skip court dates, don’t pay fines, or commit other dumb but not malicious acts. Many could be tracked with an ankle bracelet. Many with mental health problems do not belong in jail at all, but are consigned there for lack of an alternative.

The hard cases are right where they should be: behind bars.

Smart Justice Spokane, which is pushing reforms, says a significant number of prisoners could successfully be released back into the community without endangering others if the resources are there to help them. Many of the programs are out there; they are just not big enough.

The commission will release its report next fall. The three-member group should make its search for solutions as broad as possible. And the community should be ready to accept, if not welcome, new ways of dealing with a very old problem.

Soft solutions like counseling and monitoring are less expensive than jail, and better able to expand or contract as the need fluctuates. Build a jail, and the costs are locked in.

There’s nothing so inelastic as a brick.

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