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

Spokane County to hire three new corrections officers, house more federal prisoners

Spokane County plans to hire three new corrections officers and jail more federal prisoners to help fix a $10 million budget shortfall.

Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns approved the three new positions on Tuesday per the request of Detention Services Director John McGrath. They also more than tripled the number of inmates the county can hold on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service.

About a year ago, McGrath said, the county began working to reduce its inmate population and halved the number of inmates it housed on the fifth floor of the jail following a recommendation from the National Institute of Corrections. That enabled inmates to spend more time outside of their cells under a management style called direct supervision.

As part of that effort, the county capped its population of Marshals Service detainees at 40. McGrath said the previous cap was about 80. On Tuesday, the commissioners raised it to 132.

The county also holds inmates for other federal agencies, including the FBI, the DEA, the ATF and sometimes Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE. A total of 914 people were in the county’s custody on Tuesday night, according to the online jail roster.

The detention services department already had 216 corrections officers, McGrath said. The three new officers will cost a combined $206,000 per year, he said.

But because the federal government covers the cost of incarcerating its inmates – before and after trial – the county can expect to take in an additional $2.85 million per year, McGrath said.

It’s a win-win situation for the county and the Marshals Service, he said, because reducing the inmate cap had several unintended consequences. The federal agents have had to shuttle more inmates between Spokane and Benton County for court appearances several times each week, racking up transportation costs and causing the jail to go into “red light” status more frequently, he said.

With too many people traversing the booking area, patrol cars often must line up outside the sally port where inmates are handed off to jail staff. As long as those patrol officers must sit there, they can’t respond to calls.

McGrath said keeping more federal prisoners in Spokane also would improve the continuity of their medical care.

He stressed that Spokane County doesn’t “bus in” large numbers of inmates from other jurisdictions. He said nearly 97 percent of the county’s inmates are accused or convicted of crimes that occurred within the county.

Those arrested by federal agencies and task forces, McGrath said, “are the most prolific offenders in Spokane.”

Kerns praised McGrath’s plan during a sparsely attended public forum Tuesday evening. It was the first of six scheduled meetings designed to inform the public about the budget shortfall and gather feedback.

The next budget presentation is scheduled for 5:30 p.m. Aug. 30 in the commissioners’ hearing room in the Public Works Building, 1026 W. Broadway Ave. The presentation also is available on the county’s website.

The commissioners voted last week to pull a property tax proposal from the November ballot. Without additional tax revenue, the county may lay off employees and cut services such as park maintenance, officials said.

French said the model for funding county governments is broken and that officials would consider all options when crafting the 2018 budget.

“We now have counties in the state that don’t have 24/7 sheriff coverage on the roads, probably are one prosecution away from declaring bankruptcy,” he said. “We’re not there, but we can certainly see the rocks on the shore. That’s one of the reasons we’re being very proactive in terms of trying to get ahead of this.”