How Seattle Avoided Spending Millions to Build a New City Jail

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The Council will vote in early September whether to approve a new jail services contract with King County through 2030. If approved, the new contract will save Seattle taxpayers approximately $200 million in jail construction costs and multiple millions more in operation costs. Here's the story on how we got here.

In 2008, my first year on the Council, I joined some of my colleagues and told then-Mayor Nickels that we didn't want to build a new City owned and operated jail for our misdemeanor prisoners. At an estimated cost of $200 million, building a jail wasn't a desirable use of our limited resources, especially when we believed that King County should continue to be the region's primary provider of jail services.

Counties in Washington State are required to accept and pay for the jailing of felony prisoners from within their jurisdictions; not so misdemeanor prisoners. For this reason, we were compelled to move forward with site selection planning because the County told us, and all the other cities using County jail facilities for misdemeanor prisoners, that they would stop accepting misdemeanor bookings in 2013 because of overcrowding. However, the jail population forecast the County was relying on was flawed; it didn't support the County's contention that they were running out of beds so we kept pressing for another option.  

We are fortunate that the November 2009 election dramatically changed the landscape for jail planning.

Shortly after Dow Constantine's election as King County Executive, I reached out and asked him to change the conversation about jail services, as did a couple of my colleagues. We argued that King County should accept its role as the regional jail services provider, should open a new collaborative approach to planning, and should invite representatives of the County's cities to work together for better solutions. Constantine agreed and as a result, the new contract will secure for Seattle millions of dollars in tax savings.

The change is not limited to the terms of the contract itself. Executive Constantine went further by agreeing that planning for jail services should be an ongoing regional task with representatives of the County's larger cities actively participating. This is especially important in accurately forecasting the jail population. An error in forecasting, coupled with a declining jail population, is what created the jail crisis of the past several years and forced cities like Seattle to scramble to find alternatives for our misdemeanor prisoners. Thankfully, because Seattle City Council members and the County Executive got together to adopt a more collaborative process, we jointly identified the real future need for jail space by both the County and contracting municipalities. In the end, that cooperation means that both King County and Seattle, the County's largest jail customer, will now achieve their goals.

Finally, here's an interesting chart that shows Seattle's history with misdemeanor prisoners.There are lots of theories about why our use of jail beds has declined so dramatically. Regardless of the reasons for the drop, the results are nonetheless very positive.

2011 08 03 ADP Trends

Review the staff summary memo about the new agreement and the proposed jail services contract with King County.