By City Councilmember Nick Licata
DOES SEATTLE NEED TO BUILD A NEW JAIL?
In last week*s Council Budget Committee of the Whole, I presented a
proposal that would help the City determine whether we truly need to
build a new jail. I believe we need to examine the inevitability of
needing a new seven-acre facility, estimated at $110 million to build
and about $19 million a year to operate and proposed to a) either be
sited in a Seattle neighborhood and operated by the City or b) sited in
King County suburban city and jointly operated .
The City*s contract with King County for jail space expires in 2012
and without a contract with the County, the City has no place to jail
arrested misdemeanants. For this reason, 4.5 million dollars of next
year's city budget have been dedicated to siting a new jail which the
City determines could be built by the end of 2013.
In addition, the King County Prosecutor, in response to impending
budget reductions, is offering many drug defendants a reduced plea to a
misdemeanor, after which the defendant will have no requirement to, and
no assistance to, get treatment or any other intervention that would
lessen the likelihood of future criminal conduct. I prefer the approach
described below that continues to use the threat of incarceration to
entice offenders into treatment programs.
My proposal would require an evaluation of how arrests and jail
bookings could be reduced if the Seattle Police Department changed its
approach to enforcing low-level felony drug violations (offenses
involving marijuana or less than ten grams of other illegal drugs).
Here are some of the questions I proposed that this evaluation
If some number of violations could be addressed through referrals to
appropriate treatment and services, what impact would be seen on the
need for jail beds? What types of treatment and services would be
needed; at what cost? Would there be impacts to public safety; if so,
what? Could these alternatives to criminal prosecution of low-level
drug felonies be established in such a manner to ensure long-term access
to King County jail space adequate to accommodate all Seattle
My proposal directs the Office of Management and Planning to coordinate
an effort using the resources and problem-solving abilities of
community-based groups to address these questions and provide to the
Council an assessment of whether a different approach to enforcing
certain crimes could eliminate the need for a new jail.
One such approach that has been very effective is a model that uses a
pre-arrest prevention approach. In this model, SPD offers a suspect an
alternative to being booked into jail: going immediately instead to an
intake center for the law enforcement diversion program. A preliminary
assessment of the 125 participants in this program to date shows that
although they have an average of 7.6 arrests and 2.7 convictions by the
time they enter the program (average age of 25), after more than a year
the non-recidivism rate was 82%. You can read more about how the
diversion program works:
Last night (11/12/08) the proponents of this model spoke to about 150
members of the Belltown Community Council. Some community leaders are
interested in exploring submitting an application for about $1 million
in new money in a fund administered by King County so that this model
can be brought to Belltown.
The groups that I hope can help the Council and Executive to determine
whether we can eliminate the need for a new jail include the King County
Bar Association, the Urban League, citizen representatives of the
Precinct Advisory Councils, the ACLU and the public defenders. The
government agencies would include the Seattle Police Department, the
Human Services Department, the Seattle Municipal Court, and the City
Attorney*s office. Once assembled, this group would need also to
invite representatives from the King County Executive, the King County
Council, and the King County Prosecutor*s Office to join this effort
because a critical element to these deliberations is whether King County
would consider re-opening a discussion about extending the City*s
contract for use of the King County Jail.
A budget proviso is a mechanism that restricts spending by a city
department until some pre-set condition is completed by it. As a way to
ensure this work is done thoroughly, I want the City Council to attach a
proviso to a portion of the $4.5 million in the 2009 City Budget. The
City Budget Office says that the project will have at least $2 million
of 2009 funds available (plus any amount the City carries over from
2008) to fund the environmental assessments on the potential sites
Seattle is considering and any other planning work that needs to be done
in the first half of 2009. Thus a proviso of $2 million dollars should
not stop the city from future jail planning while this work is done, but
it will ensure that it*s done. Given that the Council has not always
received requested information from the Executive departments in a
timely fashion, the proviso assures the Council that it will in this
The Mayor does not support the proviso because Seattle has established
a strong regional collaboration with some of our suburban cities in
working toward a common jail site and this proviso may give them the
impression that Seattle may not be a reliable partner in that pursuit.
However, the proviso is constructed in a way to allow Seattle to
continue to work with these cities while determining if a jail is needed
of if a smaller one could suffice. Certainly if it is found that a
smaller jail is required, with lower construction and maintenance costs,
then all cities could benefit from this work.
An approach like this could accomplish 4 things:
1) Mitigate the possible negative impact on public safety and quality
of life in our neighborhoods that may result from the King County
Prosecutor*s decision to reduce many felony drug charges to
2) Considerably improve the County budget picture by decreasing
criminal justice system utilization;
3) Help us determine whether we need to build a new jail - which could
free up another $2.5 million dollars in the City budget mid-year; and
4) Help offenders to make positive changes in their lives by removing
obstacles to a better life for participants, rather than creating new
barriers and at a fraction of what it costs to arrest, book, prosecute
and convict the participants of low-level drug crimes.
Here is an editorial from this week*s Seattle P.I. supporting my
The Council will be voting on this budget action on Monday morning,
Urban Politics (UP) blends my insights and information on current
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