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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County leaders unveil $305M concept for new jail complex paid for with proposed sales tax boost

 (Chris Soprych/The Spokesman-Review)

Proponents of a new Spokane County Jail unveiled a concept for a new facility that would alleviate overcrowding and consolidate facilities and detention programs in one location.

The concept for the facility, which has not been approved, includes two new facilities along Gardner Avenue, just north of the existing Spokane County jail, that would house more than 1,000 inmates as well as a “sallyport” meant to assist in the transporting inmates.

The new facility would increase the Spokane County Jail bed capacity to 1,300 in 2028 and 1,531 inmates by the year 2053, according to a presentation from Mike Sparber, senior director for law and justice in Spokane County, who has been advocating for a new jail since 2008. The county considers the current capacity to be about 470 at the jail plus an additional 130 at the county’s Geiger Corrections Center, though both facilities often operate above those numbers.

The proposed facilities include a new “housing tower” that would hold up to 877 medium- and minimum-level offenders as well as a community corrections center that would house up to 192 minimum-level offenders. The existing jail would remain for up to 462 high-level offenders.

The estimated cost for the project is $305 million dollars, which will be repaid over a period of 30 years, resulting in a total cost of about $540 million due to interest. Sales tax would increase in the city of Spokane to 9.2% and 9.1% in Spokane Valley.

The Spokane County Commission voted in December 2022 to place the 0.2% sales tax measure on the November ballot this year to pay for the new jail and a host of criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health programs.

That cost is not finalized, said Kenneth Mohr, a project manager at Spokane County.

“It’s just our working number that we’ve tried to get an idea of what we can afford from a capital cost standpoint,” he said during a county commissioner’s meeting on Monday.

The sales tax would collect more than $1 billion from voters. About 60% would go to the county with the remainder distributed among cities within Spokane County.

Proponents for the new facilities argue that the project will allow them to close the aging Geiger Corrections Center, which is former military housing built in 1959.

“From the outside, it doesn’t look too bad, but the bones are bad,” Mohr said. “If we have a leak in a shower on one end of the building and we bring plumbers to work on it, it can potentially disrupt a joint that’s a 100 feet down the other end of the building and cause a leak there.”

The Geiger facility, which is near the Spokane International Airport in Airway Heights, houses qualified low offenders, but it is also overcrowded, Sparber said.

Proponents of the new facility also argue that the new project would allow jail staff to “undouble” the beds at the current downtown facility.

Originally built in 1986 for a county population of 354,000, the county’s average daily population of inmates since 1997 is 912, according to a report from Sparber. Spokane County’s population has grown to about 530,000.

However, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and the Blake decision, which decriminalized drug possession in Washington state, drastically altered the jail’s landscape, he said.

The inmate population in Spokane County took a steep dive in 2020, bringing the total population to pre-2000 levels (under 700 inmates including at Geiger).

But the average daily population and the length of stay at the jail is steadily increasing again, according to Sparber’s report. That’s because more serious felonies are being committed in Spokane County, Sparber said.

Jail population has increased since falling in 2020, but the average daily population is far less than in the 2000s. The average daily population remained above 900 inmates between 1999 and 2009, at one point reaching 1,161, according to the report.

The current population at the downtown jail was at 648 and 172 at Geiger on Monday, Sparber said.

“The population taking up the most space in the jail is the felony population and gross misdemeanor population,” he said.

Inmates are locked in their cells for longer due to the overcrowding, Sparber said. As a result, they are unable to participate in the jail’s detention programs, he said.

Sparber plans to present a report to county commissioners about plans for new jail programs on May 15.

The new facilities would be built to accommodate Spokane County’s population through 2053, which is projected to be more than 682,000.

The new facilities would be built to maximize the efficiency of corrections officers per inmates on each floor, according to the report. The current downtown jail is “a hugely inefficient model,” Sparber said.

Spokane County has been facing a shortage of corrections officers, who are spread thin between Geiger and the downtown facility.

Opponents of building a new jail argue that the new facility doesn’t do anything to reduce crime or recidivism among inmates.

“We don’t need more beds,” said Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, who has been a longtime opponent of a new facility. “If anything, we need fewer beds. Jail beds are the most expensive intervention and they are the most ineffective.”

Beggs refutes the idea that crime in Spokane County is increasing. Overall, crime is decreasing in Spokane County and across the country, he said.

Overall, crime in Washington decreased by nearly 4% between 2020 and 2021, according to a report from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. However, violent crime increased by more than 12%, the report said. But FBI data also shows that violent crime in the state was down in 2021 compared to 2000.

The Spokane County Jail is overcrowded, but building a facility would be like “biting our nose off to spite our face,” he said.

Rather, the county should expand its detention services, such as electronic home monitoring or a supported release program, to alleviate the overcrowded jail, he said.

“You could do it tomorrow and you can take care of all these issues,” he said. “For some reason, the county doesn’t want to spend (money) on people, they want to spend it on buildings.”

County Commissioner Amber Waldref, a Democrat who joined the commission in January after the proposal was placed on the November ballot, said that she is unconvinced so far.

“I do think that there is a need for a community corrections facility and different types of housing that is safer and more humane that facilitates reconciliation back into the community,” she said. “How big that is, how many beds, that is still an open question, and I haven’t had those concerns addressed.”

Like Beggs, Waldref believes there is value in continuing different detention service programs in Spokane County. That impact on inmate recidivism and rehabilitation has not been clearly defined though, she said.

There still are some jail programs in place, such as for drug rehabilitation, but they have largely been reduced in recent years, Spokane County spokesman Jared Webley said.

“We could invest a lot of these dollars in health care and services upstream,” Waldref said. “I think it’s just a question of what are those and what is the cost.”

Both Waldref and Beggs said they recognize the need to replace Geiger.

Commissioner Al French, a longtime proponent of a new jail, said that construction likely would begin in 2025 if approved by voters. It would take about 18-24 months to finish, he said.

“There are those in the community that say, ‘if you build a big jail they’ll be committed to just filling it,’ ” he said. “There couldn’t be anything further from the truth. The county doesn’t make money, we spend money when we jail somebody.”

French is also in favor of more detention service programs, but said the new jail facilities are a necessary addition. The county has successfully implemented those programs over the years, but now they need to account for county growth, he said.

“We’ve beat this thing to death,” he said. “It’s now time for the voters to weigh in. Do you want a new jail or not?”