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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane weighs inmate transfers

Benton County charges $56 per person per day

By John Craig and Jonathan Brunt The Spokesman-Review

The Spokane City Council will consider a proposal Monday to save about $1 million a year by sending inmates to the Benton County Jail in Kennewick.

Spokane County officials are bracing for the loss of 50 or more misdemeanor prisoners to a competitor with a big price advantage.

The average daily cost of keeping an inmate in the Spokane County Jail or the Geiger Corrections Center is about $111, but Benton County will charge Spokane only $56.

The rates aren’t entirely comparable, though.

Spokane’s contract with Benton County would require it to pay any extraordinary costs, including “all costs associated with the delivery of medical, psychiatric and dental services” that can’t be handled by jail staff.

“We try to take advantage of everything we can to keep the medical costs down,” such as insurance and government programs, Benton County Undersheriff Jerry Hatcher said.

Transportation to and from Kennewick is included in the price. Hatcher said his staff already makes twice-daily prisoner trips to Spokane under contracts with the state Department of Corrections and the U.S. Marshals Service.

The 10-year contract, which can be canceled with 90-day notice, would take effect April 1. It would require Spokane to pay for at least 50 beds and allows it to send additional inmates at the $56 rate.

In future years, the price would be adjusted according to the West Coast Consumer Price Index.

Capt. John McGrath, commander of the Spokane County jail system, said Spokane has been responsible for 127 of 768 inmates in daily averages through October.

The city pays for inmates charged or convicted under city misdemeanor ordinances. The county is responsible for felonies and other cases charged under state law.

McGrath said the Sheriff’s Office charges Spokane and other cities in the county only their proportional share of jail costs under a new contract system adopted last year. This year, the daily cost is expected to be about $111 per inmate.

Hatcher said Benton County has a similar arrangement with its communities, and Spokane is getting the same price as local cities.

Spokane’s chief financial officer, Gavin Cooley, said several counties have courted the city in its search for cheaper jail space.

“There’s a tremendous glut of jail space across the state,” he said.

The 2012 budget the City Council approved Monday assumes the Benton County contract will be approved. Most council members said in interviews Tuesday that they lean in favor.

“In this budget environment, anything that saves us more than half of what we’re currently paying, we’ve got to look at,” Councilman Jon Snyder said.

Cooley said much of the Benton County Jail was built in 2003, and it has features that allow better interaction between guards and inmates.

Hatcher said Benton County built a jail big enough for future needs and has been renting out the excess space since it opened. The jail holds 739 and had 546 inmates Tuesday – including 397 from Benton County and 149 from outside jurisdictions.

It’s getting harder to find customers because of competition from other counties, including Yakima and Chelan, Hatcher said.

McGrath thinks some jails can offer lower rates because they are subsidized by their counties’ general funds. Customers, of course, don’t care if a vendor is losing money.

Spokane City Councilman Steve Corker said moving inmates to Benton County could delay the need for Spokane County to ask voters to upgrade its jail system.

Moving inmates to Benton County isn’t ideal, but the economy “is forcing us to do things that we probably wouldn’t consider otherwise,” Corker said.

McGrath thinks Spokane has only about 30 inmates, on average, who reasonably could be lodged in a jail that’s 140 miles away. City officials haven’t decided which category of inmates to send but say they would consider transferring all but those with severe medical or mental problems or those who will have only short stays.

Benton County and the city may set up a video system for some court proceedings.

“They also have provision for video interaction with both their family members and their lawyers and the court system,” said Mayor Mary Verner.

Verner said the city action wouldn’t eliminate the need to improve Spokane County’s jail and Geiger Corrections Center.

“It gives us a lower cost option for now, and it gives us more time to come up with a better jail solution,” Verner said.

Hatcher said Benton County could help by renting space to Spokane County.

“I could take 100 of their prisoners pretty easily,” he said.