Debate over the need for a new Spokane County Jail has become a key issue in this year’s campaigns for sheriff and county commissioner after a candidate in the sheriff’s race produced a radio ad pegging the potential cost at $300 million.
Doug Orr, who is challenging incumbent Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, has won the endorsement of former Sheriff Mark Sterk. In a radio ad, Sterk says, “Now is not the time to be promoting a $300 million jail.”
That line led Spokane’s three county commissioners to vote unanimously Tuesday on a statement rejecting the claim. Each commissioner has endorsed Knezovich, according to the sheriff’s website.
“The Board of County Commissioners is NOT pursuing the construction of a new jail,” the statement read. “No proposal for jail construction is presently under consideration – and hasn’t been discussed for more than three years.”
In September 2012, however, commissioners reopened a site-selection process for a new jail. Currently, the top alternative is property owned by Spokane International Airport just north of the Waste to Energy plant. The site selection has been put on hold as the county works through potential reforms as well as options for replacing the aging Geiger Corrections Center.
An old estimate that a new jail would cost $265 million was pared to $199 million and then shelved. Commissioners had debated putting that proposal on the 2011 ballot but backed away.
The county now is looking at efforts to reform the criminal justice system and reduce the need for new jail beds, commissioners said.
Commissioner Al French, who faces two challengers in his race for re-election, said, “I’m concerned that the last lie told is the truth.”
He said the issue has come up in his primary election race against Democrat Mary Lou Johnson and former County Commissioner Bonnie Mager, who lost her seat to French in 2010 and is running as an independent.
Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said the statement by Sterk in the campaign ad “is actually hurting our efforts around criminal justice reform. It’s creating confusion.”
After the commissioners issued their statement, Orr, a Republican, said, “I’m pleased they are joining me to oppose the jail project.”
He said Knezovich, also a Republican, has been a proponent of the new jail as well as a sales tax increase of 0.2 percent to pay for increasing criminal justice costs. The sales tax would generate $15 million a year.
Orr said that in recent years “a lot of costs were tossed around – $300 million is not a fantasy.”
He said with those kinds of numbers, it’s easy to see why criminal justice reform “is so attractive.”
He said a community corrections center to house reform programs at a cost of $20 million to $40 million makes more sense.
Knezovich supports building a new jail, but said the $300 million claim in the ad is “an outright falsehood.”
The sheriff said the jail is constantly crowded and inefficient to run. Its booking area frequently is backed up, forcing officers to waste time while waiting for booking. The kitchen is too small and in disrepair, and elevators need to be replaced, he said. Geiger is an old military barracks not intended for holding prisoners.
Criminal justice reform hinges on having a jail bed available to hold offenders accountable, said Knezovich, who also supports a community corrections center.
“This is a law and safety issue,” he said.
The commissioners in their statement said that a reorganized Law and Justice Council will hold its first meeting to guide reform Aug. 14.
Suggested reforms were outlined in a report late last year by the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission. It recommended a new community corrections center to house jail diversions, rehabilitation work, re-entry programs and other reforms.