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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Commissioner Al French seeks consensus on new jail

The Spokane County Jail, built in 1986, is showing its age and overcrowded despite efforts to reduce the inmate population. County Commissioner Al French says it’s time to build a new jail, and after years of debate he hopes to craft a proposal the community can get behind. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Spokane County Commissioner Al French says it’s time to build a new jail, and after years of debate he hopes to craft a proposal the community can get behind.

“The goal is to have something concrete, defined, this year,” said French, who also chairs the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council and its facilities committee. “This can has been kicked down the road for so many years that we need to get an answer. We need to get a solution.”

The main downtown jail, built in 1986, and the Geiger Corrections Center, which was converted from old Air Force barracks to hold minimum-security prisoners, are showing their age and are far too crowded despite efforts to reduce the inmate population. French said a new jail with a better layout could be operated more safely and efficiently.

The county commissioners have not formally discussed how they might pay for a new jail, where the facility would go, how many inmates it would house or what services it would offer. But French and others have broached the topic with the Law and Justice Council, a panel of two dozen city and county officials and community activists.

“We’ve got to come down to a number for jail cells that everybody can buy into,” French said. “I mean, I’ve got folks on one side of the equation that say, ‘You don’t need a new jail. Just shut the existing jail down and let everybody out,’ to people on the other side that will chant, ‘Build that jail!’

“Clearly, both of those are emotionally driven arguments, but somewhere is the right number,” he said. “So what is that number? And is there a method that we can use to identify that number without the emotion?”

There have been several attempts to secure funding for a new jail, including an abandoned bond measure in 2011. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has been a vocal proponent of the idea.

Commissioner Mary Kuney said she had not been a part of any conversations about jail space and was seeking a position on the Law and Justice Council. Commissioner Josh Kerns said he would probably support letting voters make a decision on funding for a new jail.

“Eventually we are going to get to the point where we need one,” Kerns said.

But others argue any plans for a new jail would be premature and that the county should limit its reliance on incarceration, which disproportionately affects poor defendants who can’t post bail for low-level charges.

City Council President Ben Stuckart said county officials should focus on implementing reforms. He cited a 2015 series of recommendations by the National Institute of Corrections and a 2013 report titled “A Blueprint for Reform,” which was crafted by two prominent local attorneys and a retired Spokane County judge.

The “Blueprint” report said what many other experts have repeated in recent years: “Research has repeatedly demonstrated that jail and intensive supervision do not reduce recidivism, and shifting away from an over-reliance on jail and towards community-based alternatives is critical to move us into a 21st century justice model.”

Stuckart also noted that the county commissioners voted in August 2017 to hold more federal prisoners in county custody, in part to fix a nearly $10 million funding shortfall. The jail is now authorized to hold 132 inmates on behalf of the U.S. Marshals Service, up from a previous cap of 40.

“That’s a choice that the county has made to take 90 more prisoners a day,” Stuckart said. “If the argument is that the jail is overcrowded, the first thing they could do is take fewer federal prisoners.”

Meanwhile, City Councilman Breean Beggs agreed with French that something needs to be done about the aging facilities, noting some maintenance problems in the downtown jail’s basement kitchen. Practically no one wants to keep housing inmates at Geiger, he said.

Beggs, who sits on the Law and Justice Council’s facilities committee, said even the most ardent opponents of additional jail space might get behind a proposal for a safer facility that requires less upkeep and fewer corrections officers.

“My sense is that we’re going to get a new facility, but it doesn’t necessarily need to be a bigger facility,” he said.