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Officials say adding courtroom to jail would ease overcrowding

UPDATED: Sat., Oct. 17, 2015

Spokane County Corrections Officer Dennis Platz views the 2 West Rec Court area in the Spokane County Jail. The Law and Justice Commission is considering a proposal to build a courtroom in this area of the jail. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Corrections Officer Dennis Platz views the 2 West Rec Court area in the Spokane County Jail. The Law and Justice Commission is considering a proposal to build a courtroom in this area of the jail. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A regional criminal justice council is considering a proposal to build a courtroom in the Spokane County Jail, a plan jail staff say is a first step toward more systematic changes to ease overcrowding.

The proposal, presented at a meeting of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council last week, would revamp a common area on the jail’s second floor, cutting down on the amount of time jail staff spend transporting inmates to court hearings. The remodel is estimated to cost about $380,000.

Jail staff say the immediate benefit is in efficiency, but a new jail courtroom would pave the way for more sweeping changes designed to reduce jail overcrowding, including holding court appearances outside of normal business hours.

“There are lots of options that would come with it,” Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn, who backs the proposal, said during the presentation.

The multipurpose courtroom plan was presented by jail Lt. Michael Sparber, county clerk Timothy Fitzgerald and city prosecutor Justin Bingham. It’s one of the first formal proposals to come out of the council, which was restarted last year to find ways to improve the criminal justice system by bringing together representatives from city and county government, courts, jail and law enforcement.

When someone’s booked into jail, they’re usually put in a unit on the west side of the second floor for several days, giving jail staff time to observe their baseline behavior and decide where to house them. Many inmates will be released immediately after seeing a judge, but the logistics of getting paperwork processed and transporting inmates to and from hearings often delay those releases until the following day. That means people who will eventually be released on their own recognizance sit in jail, taking up bed space.

First court appearances take place by videoconference from a courtroom on the third floor annex of the adjoining Public Safety Building, requiring jail staff to transport inmates up a floor and down several hallways to get to court.

“They’re small, they’re cramped and they require a transport element,” Sparber said of the current courtrooms.

If one person has charges in both municipal and district or superior courts, they may need to be moved multiple times in one day.

The proposal calls for a multipurpose courtroom handling municipal, district and superior court cases to be built in the recreation area of 2 West, eliminating the need to transport inmates. That space rarely is used now because most jail inmates aren’t on the floor long enough to use recreation time.

O’Quinn said she expects the council to vote on the proposal at their next meeting on Nov. 4 and hopes to see funds for construction in 2016 budgets if the proposal is approved. Funding would be split between city and county agencies, though exact amounts have not been determined.

The existing annex courtrooms still would be used, but a new multipurpose courtroom would open up more options for holding hearings after hours and on weekends.

Anyone booked into jail after 6:45 a.m. likely won’t appear in court until the next day, but data presented by Sparber shows average jail bookings in 2014 were highest between 1 and 4 p.m. Average bookings were also higher on Friday than any other day of the week, which means many inmates who end up being released Monday spent the whole weekend in jail. A multipurpose courtroom eventually could be the home of a so-called “portability judge” who has authority to hear cases from all levels of court.

“Infrastructure makes that plausible, whereas without infrastructure it’s off the table,” said Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke, who chairs the council.

The plan drew questions from county risk manager Steve Bartel, who said he’d want a thorough evaluation of safety and security for jail staff in the new space. But comments were largely positive. O’Quinn said she’s discussed the idea with city and county prosecutors and public defenders, who are all on board.

“It’s a bigger space, so it’s going to be safer for my attorneys,” said city public defender Kathy Knox.

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