Extra room in the jail: a surprise with costly implications

Dec 9, 2010

King County says it now has a glut of jail space and must consider cutting the rate it charges to cities to house offenders.  That comes after years of dire warnings about jail over-crowding.  Cities in south King County are building a new jail (which opens next year) for $56 million in Des Moines. 

The Seattle Times reports King County has been warned to cut costs or else face a loss of revenue.  It costs nearly twice as much to house a prisoner in King County versus Snohomish County.

The number of prisoners in the two King County jails peaked in 2007 and has dropped sharply since then.  Officials aren’t sure why, but one reason could be increased use of drug-courts and mental-health courts to get some offenders into treatment, instead of jailing them.  On the other hand, the Times quotes Claudia Balducci, who runs the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, as saying one reason it's hard to reduce the cost of operating the jails is because so many prisoners have mental health issues requiring tight supervision.  

Both could be true, if you assume a high percentage of offenders these days have a mental illness.

Other King County cities, including Seattle, have suspended their search for an additional new jail site.  

One other challenge to cutting costs at the King County jails: resistance from the Corrections Guild, representing jail guards.  They've been letting council-members know that cuts to the jails are making it "unsafe" for guards.  As the Times notes, the last time the Council cut spending significantly on jails, the Guild funded an initiative that eliminated four County Council positions.