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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

New jail gets formal vote of support from Spokane County Commission

A cell in the Spokane County Jail is nearly empty Aug. 15, except for a mattress and a book.  (Colin Tiernan/The Spokesman-Review)

There wasn’t any doubt about what the Spokane County Commission’s Republican majority thought of building a new jail.

But now they’ve made their support for Measure 1 official.

In a rare evening meeting, the county commission Tuesday invited members of the public to opine on Measure 1, a 0.2% sales tax proposal set to appear on the general election ballot. The county commission formally endorsed the sales tax after hearing an hour of short speeches from the public.

If approved, Measure 1 would generate an estimated $1.7 billion over 30 years. That money would allow the county to build two new jails and also provide local governments with a massive new revenue source. Per state law, governments would have to spend their money on criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health projects.

Most of the public hearing’s attendees spoke in favor of Measure 1.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels argued that building new jails and investing heavily in the criminal justice system is essential, not only to keep law-abiding citizens safe, but to save the lives of those struggling with addiction and mental health issues.

“People, unless they’re compelled into treatment, likely are not going to take advantage of it,” Nowels said.

Some proponents of the sales tax said they miss the Spokane of their childhoods and feel the city is being overrun by violent thieves.

Opponents often said prioritizing construction of new jails is misguided, and that locking more people up won’t reduce recidivism or increase public safety. Some speakers said that, instead of focusing so heavily on incarceration, elected officials should first and foremost work to bolster the region’s social services.

The public hearing wasn’t expected to change the minds of politicians. All five county commissioners had clearly expressed their thoughts and feelings about the sales tax months ago.

Republican commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French are the ones responsible for putting Measure 1 on the general election ballot. Democratic commissioners Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan this summer tried unsuccessfully to convince their conservative colleagues to pull the question from the ballot.

Even though their views were already well known, the commissioners Tuesday decided to take an official stance on the tax. The commission’s three Republicans – Kerns, French and Mary Kuney – voted in favor of formally supporting Measure 1, and the two Democrats voted against it. The entire procedure was symbolic, and mirrored a similar effort the Spokane City Council made Monday to state its opposition to Measure 1.

French, who has long campaigned for a new jail, said the sales tax is needed to keep criminals off Spokane’s streets. The region needs more jail beds so it can lock up more bad people, he said.

“You must have a consequence for bad behavior, and that is a jail cell,” he said.

Waldref said she’s heartened that people on both sides of the jail debate want to improve public safety and expand access to behavioral health resources.

The former city councilwoman said Spokane County may need more jail capacity at some point. But she said voters deserve a more detailed description of what Measure 1 would pay for.

While the county has said it plans to spend about $540 million on two new jails, it’s unclear exactly how the remaining $1.1 billion would be spent.

“There’s just not specifics,” Waldref said. “It’s a proposal without a clear road map.”

How would Measure 1 work?

Per state law, 60% of the money brought in by Measure 1 would go to Spokane County, and the remaining 40% would be distributed to municipalities on a per capita basis.

In effect, about $1.05 billion would go to the county, $405 million to Spokane and $188 million to Spokane Valley. The region’s smaller cities and towns would receive far smaller, but proportionate, shares.

Local governments would have significant leeway in how they could spend their new sales tax dollars. State law only mandates that the money be spent on efforts connected to criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health – an umbrella term often used when referring to the treatment of mental health and substance use disorders.

It isn’t yet clear how the majority of the $1.7 billion would be spent, but Spokane County has a plan for about half of its share.

If Measure 1 passes, the county will build two new jails, right next to the current jail. Those facilities would cost $305 million, although the true price tag would likely be closer to $540 million due to interest payments on loans.

One of the new jails would be five stories tall, with capacity for 768 to 896 inmates.

The other would be a lower-security facility, referred to as a community corrections center, with room for 128 inmates. It would replace Geiger Corrections Center and include classroom space.

Inmates who never graduated from high school could take GED classes and receive the equivalent of a diploma while behind bars. The county could also offer various types of programs, such as job training or addiction and mental health counseling.

The current jail would remain open, but the number of inmates housed there would decrease from the 560 range to 462 – the original intended capacity for the building.

If voters approve Measure 1, Spokane County would gain about 400 new jail beds.