For more than a decade, Spokane County leaders have pushed for the construction of a new and bigger jail.
But it could be the city of Spokane that ends up doing it.
Spokane’s long-term plan is to have a new criminal justice complex to house its municipal court, a jail for those convicted of misdemeanor crimes, and space for other programs and services.
Moving forward on the project would end more than 50 years of a voter-approved combined city-county criminal justice system for misdemeanor crimes. But it would continue a trend of recent separation. The city separated its municipal court from Spokane County District Court in 2009.
Mayor David Condon and City Council President Ben Stuckart – often political opponents – support the proposal. Stuckart announced last week that moving forward with the project would be a priority of his if he is elected mayor in November.
“By sending misdemeanors to a system run by the city, we control who needs services and who doesn’t,” Stuckart said in a statement outlining his positions on reforming the criminal justice system. “Our system has already shown an ability to be innovative, and now all people charged with misdemeanors will be under our system. This will free up beds in the county system, reducing overcrowding, while keeping those who do not belong there in the municipal system.”
Municipal Court Administrator Howard Delaney said the new center would put all city municipal court services, judges, attorneys, probation, pretrial services and detainment in one building. He said the new system would be designed to be safer for employees and make it easier for misdemeanor offenders to access services.
He said there would be space for up to 150 people to stay in the facility if they were in jail, or staying for a program.
“It’s a multiuse facility, not just bars and beds,” Delaney said.
Stuckart said he anticipates the new center would cost the same amount the city is already paying the county to lease space for judges and attorneys and to house people arrested for misdemeanors. He said it also would be a safer place for people arrested for misdemeanors than the overcrowded Spokane County Jail.
The Spokane County Jail’s population fluctuates between 900 and 1,000 inmates. Inmates who have died from suicide, overdoses or other medical issues have spurred an interest in reforms.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who has called for a new jail in the past, said leaders and law enforcement had the right idea when they combined the city and county jails 50 years ago and this new proposal would further divide an already strained system. He called city and county leaders behind the current jail in the late 1960s wise and said taking misdemeanor offenders out of the county jail likely wouldn’t help with overcrowding much.
“They combined all of the things for a reason,” he said, “because its cheaper for the community overall.”
Other mayoral candidates criticized the proposal, or Stuckart’s support for it. Nadine Woodward said she was confident in Condon, but said Stuckart advocating for it just before an election was a “red herring” and a distraction from the regionwide discussion over a new jail. She declined to take a position on whether she supported a new jail or the municipal facility, saying she would evaluate the ideas if she was elected mayor.
Another mayoral candidate, Jonathan Bingle, said he was wary of the proposal because taking the small number of people in jail for misdemeanors probably won’t do much to reduce overcrowding and it might not end up being a cost savings for the city.
“Without having the hard numbers, I don’t see how this could save the city money,” he said.
Candidate Kelly Cruz echoed Bingle’s concerns, saying he was worried it could end up costing far more than expected once the city studies the problem. He said people who are arrested for misdemeanors aren’t why the jail is crowded and removing a few people arrested for low-level offenses probably won’t cost less or dramatically reduce overcrowding.
“It’s a concept, but not a very viable concept,” Cruz said.
Attempts to reach candidate Shawn Poole were unsuccessful.
Before combining facilities, city inmates were housed in a converted office building and county inmates were housed in a 70-year-old facility. The combined jail was built in 1975 and was declared full five years after opening.
Delaney said the current buildings where the city’s criminal justice staff work don’t always feel safe because defendants, victims and court employees all share the same hallways and wait in the same areas for court.
He said one of the biggest benefits would be creating a space for people arrested on misdemeanors. The county jail often doesn’t have space for those defendants, causing them to be released and repeatedly miss court dates. Delaney said a separate city jail space would be a safer, minimum-security area, he said.
Condon said the new center is still several years away and won’t be built until he is out of office. He said the center is part of the city’s strategic plan, which is designed to continue regardless of whoever is in office.
“Everything doesn’t start and stop with political rotations,” he said.
He said the city has integrated several services with the county or combined services within the city as well during his administration, and reducing recidivism and becoming more efficient are values the court system shares with his administration.
Officials said they would try to create the complex near the Spokane County Courthouse, but they were unsure if it would be new construction or a remodeled building. A cost estimate isn’t available, but Stuckart said he did not believe a tax increase would be necessary.
Stuckart said city staff is working on the cost of the project. . He said the city pays $4.7 million to the county to house an average of 50 inmates a day.
The city also leases multiple spaces for other portions of its criminal justice system. Ending those leases would help the city pay for its own space, city officials said.
The project isn’t about reducing costs, and the project will probably break even, Stuckart said. Some funds would come from ending the lease payments the city makes to the county to rent courtroom space. Potentially, the sale of a building could free up money.
“I don’t think you can go into this saying you’re going to save money,” he said. “It’s to have a more efficient system, not to cut corners.”
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