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Thursday, December 5, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Spokane

Shawn Vestal: Jailing people is expensive. Let’s look at all the options before building more cells in Spokane.

The Spokane County Jail, seen in June 2018, is crowded and in lousy shape, and officials argue it is unsafe. With a daily population that has long ranged between 900 and 1,000, it has regularly held a couple hundred more prisoners than it was built for. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Jail, seen in June 2018, is crowded and in lousy shape, and officials argue it is unsafe. With a daily population that has long ranged between 900 and 1,000, it has regularly held a couple hundred more prisoners than it was built for. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Two figures stand out prominently in a new batch of stats emerging from an analysis of Spokane’s jail usage: $298 and $25.

The first figure is the cost to book someone into jail. It then costs $134 a day to keep them there.

The second is the cost to start someone on an electronic home monitoring device. It costs $4 a day to run the monitoring device thereafter.

These costs – and the suggestion behind them that we might consider less expensive and more effective ways of managing the less-serious cases in our overcrowded jail – are part of the picture emerging from a task force charged with examining our reliance on incarceration.

It’s part of a process that has been underway in this community for five years, which will result in a batch of recommendations in the near future that the Spokane County Commission will use to decide whether to put a new jail proposal before voters next year.

Maggie Yates, the administrator for the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council overseeing the jail evaluation efforts, said it’s important to remember that cost is only a part of the discussion. What the council’s Justice Task Force is trying to determine is not just whether we can do things more cheaply, but more effectively.

“Are we investing in a way that reduces criminal activity and improves community stability?” Yates asked.

A recent community presentation of statistics, comparisons to other communities and recommendations from the task force suggest some forms of community supervision, especially among the pretrial population, may be more efficient than incarceration at resolving cases, trying to address underlying causes and helping defendants stop cycling through the jail.

It also outlined several reforms other jurisdictions have undertaken, rethinking everything from the way court summons are designed to whether the government ought to fund bail for some defendants.

The process is focused on trying to bring down the jail population and shift the system away from incarceration – and it’s on a collision course with some public officials, and Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich in particular, who are committed to a much bigger jail.

A series of recommendations is due from the task force by sometime in January. The County Commission will then begin a process to determine whether to ask voters to build a new jail. Commissioner Al French has said he supports a new facility because the current jail is old and expensive to maintain – but he said his mind is open as to the size and the balance of services available.

French foresees a clash between those who want less incarceration and those who want more.

“Absolutely,” French said. “This is not easy work. This is going to be challenging. Some folks are going to have to be able to take a leap of faith.”

French said he expects some combination of incarceration and alternative programs will need to be developed that’s tailored for Spokane. Not every proposal from other cities may translate here, he said.

“My assumption today is we’re going to end up having something on the ballot,” he said this week. “The only thing I don’t know is, is it a 500-cell (jail)? Is it a 1,000-cell? That I don’t know.”

Savings and safety

The county jail is crowded and in lousy shape, and officials argue it is unsafe. With a daily population that has long ranged between 900 and 1,000, it has regularly held a couple of hundred more prisoners than it was built for. Knezovich argues it’s simply too small for the city and says we need a jail three times as big as this one.

Reform advocates say we haven’t done enough to see if we can break the reliance on expensive maximum-security cells for every infraction.

A significant proportion of the jail population is made up of lower-level offenders who can’t afford to post bail, for example. Might there be alternatives to holding them – people whom judges have deemed releasable, if they have the money – that would free up jail space?

Another issue is the accumulation of escalating criminal charges by those who fail to show up for court hearings, for whatever reason. Are there strategies that could ensure more people make it to court and resolve their cases?

Spokane County has been engaged in trying to find answers to questions like these since 2015, when it received the first grant funding from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge to reduce the jail population. The Vera Institute of Justice has been holding community meetings and gathering information as part of that process.

The MacArthur work has merged with a process the commissioners initiated, contracting with the JFA Institute, another organization focused on reducing incarceration. That organization is gathering data about the local jail and others. It’s all part of the Law and Justice Council’s task force work.

At a community meeting Oct. 28, the task force presented information about jail costs and reform programs undertaken in other jurisdictions with suggestions for how such programs might play out here.

For example, officials evaluated how many people are held in the county jail on bonds of less than $5,000. On Sept. 18, a snapshot of the jail population showed there were 82 such people, which is roughly 9% of the average daily jail population of 930.

Over the course of a year, there were 1,938 total days in the jail served by inmates with bail at that level, at a cost of about $260,000.

By comparison, it would cost just $74,731 to bail all those folks out.

As part of a suite of programs that emphasizes community supervision, New York City has funded a bail program that pays the bonds of some defendants. In 2018, the Liberty Fund posted $370,000 in bonds, and 87% of participants made all of their court appearances.

It saved $1.5 million.

Other strategies

Another New York program allows supervised release of defendants instead of bond. This isn’t the electronic home monitoring that many associate with community release; it’s just supervised release for those who qualify, with the supervision contracted to social workers.

That program spent $2,500 per person, with an average length of participation of 3.5 months. It would cost more than $25,000 to keep someone in jail in Spokane for that long.

But what about community safety? What about crime? The New York program reported that 88% of all people in the supervised release program made it to all their court appearances.

But one-fifth were arrested again while on release, and 8% were arrested for a felony.

Here are some of the other key takeaways from the task force presentation:

Some jurisdictions have redesigned their court summons to enlarge and draw attention to the penalties for missing a hearing. Others have ramped up efforts to remind defendants of upcoming hearings, via text, for example. We use text reminders here, but could consider expanding their use, the task force said.

Some counties have stopped releasing inmates overnight, or have created a place for them to be until daylight hours. Releasing people into the night means they have no access to any services or people that might help them – and when they might be more likely to re-engage with criminal activity. The task force looked at jail releases for a two-month period in 2018 and found that 29% of the pretrial releases were between 8 p.m. and 6 a.m. A quarter of the releases after sentences were served came during those hours.

Spokane County could significantly expand the use of community supervision in a variety of forms. Electronic home monitoring, for example, is used relatively sparingly. On the “jail snapshot” day in September, 63 people in the jail met the requirements for allowing electronic home monitoring, but only 25 were enrolled in it. The cost differences are significant: keeping someone in jail for a year costs $51,100, and keeping someone on monitoring for a year costs about $1,204 – though that does not include staffing costs.

A stronger connection between social services and jail release could help people be more successful upon their release. We do some of this, but expanding “reach-ins” – providers of mental health care and other services contacting inmates prior to release – as well as other ways of connecting people to services could help them address underlying causes of their criminal behavior.

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