King County Jails' Latest "Problem": Too Few Inmates

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King County officials seem put out that their jails are, for the first time in recent history, under-crowded. All that space could be earning money--through fees paid by cities to jail their inmates. But the cities have started using other jails offering lower rates (maybe jail beds could be a new market for Expedia). Actually, though, the drop in the jail population is great news.

For one thing, it's due to a dramatic drop in crime. Between 1993 and 2008, the number of crimes reported plunged 31 percent in the county (including Seattle), even though the population grew nearly 20 percent. (See a detailed analysis of crime statistics in this county council report.)

For another, the glut of jail space reflects the success of county programs that were formed specifically to reduce the inmate population, according to county legislative analyst Clifton Curry. At one time, the county thought its Seattle and Kent jails would soon run out of room. It amped up alternative forms of punishment, such as electronic home detention and work-release programs. The number of people being so punished on any given day has increased from 100 to 600 between 2004 and 2010, Curry says.

At the same time, the county put more money into housing people--namely the mentally ill and drug-addicted--who, when living on the streets, tend to get into trouble that lands them in jail.

In 2007, the county put 2,000 people in jail; last year, it locked up 1,500.

From a social-policy standpoint, "it's exactly where we want to go," Curry says. The problem, he adds, is strictly financial. When the county thought it was running out of jail space, it told cities that had been housing their inmates in the Seattle and Kent facilities to look elsewhere. But now that it turns out that the county miscalculated, those empty beds and lost revenue are sticking in officials' craws.

No matter how big the drop of inmates, the county still has the cost of running two big prisons. It can trim those costs somewhat; for instance, by cutting the number of jail guards. But the King County Corrections Guild is already gearing up for battle should the county suggest that.

There is another solution, however. The county could follow the example of the state and simply close one of its jails. The Seattle facility contains 1,700 beds, more than enough for the current number of county inmates.

In fact, Curry says county officials have already broached that idea, and will discuss it in earnest over the following year.

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