George P. Fromm II

A 1999 study released by King County estimated that in the worst-case scenario, the county's inmate population would swell to around 4,500—maxing out the capacities at the King County Jail (KCJ) in downtown Seattle and the Regional Justice Center (RJC) in Kent. Consequently, every city in the county was informed that starting in 2012, King County jails would no longer accept their misdemeanor offenders. Now, as the deadline approaches, cities like Seattle, Bellevue, and Renton—which each pay $108 per day to house a few hundred misdemeanor offenders at King County facilities—are scrambling to come up with new jail sites.

So far, Seattle has selected four potential sites in West Seattle, Interbay, and the Haller Lake neighborhood. All of the potential sites have drawn opposition from local political figures and neighborhood groups, which quite reasonably don't want a jail in their backyards. "All of us care about our neighborhoods equally," says Dina Johnson, an organizer for the Highland Park Action Committee in West Seattle. "[The jail] really should not be close to where anybody is living."

But there may be another solution.

As it turns out, King County's 1999 study was flat-out wrong about its projected inmate population. Neither KCJ nor RJC are operating anywhere close to capacity. By now, the county was supposed to have roughly 2,600 inmates. Instead, the county has about 2,200 and, if operating at maximum capacity—which would require an expansion at RJC—room for nearly 1,500 more between its two facilities.

According to Major William Hayes, a spokesman for KCJ, the county's projections for its jail populations have changed drastically in the last decade because of diversion programs such as drug court and work release. "We could handle quite a few more [inmates]... if we needed to," says Hayes, who adds that he's never seen a jail reach capacity in the 24 years he's been with the county.

On the other hand, several other factors could mean King County does need a new jail sooner rather than later. Because of a $68 million county budget deficit, drug court and mental-health court could soon disappear, as could the county's homeless inmate housing-voucher program, which has reportedly reduced recidivism rates between 30 and 40 percent. The loss of both programs could lead to a spike in the prison population.

Dave Murphy, who coordinates the housing-voucher program, confirms that cuts are coming, but says he doesn't know exactly how much the program will be reduced. The $550,000-a-year program, which began in May 2003, has provided vouchers to about 900 people. With a 30 percent reduction in repeat offenses, it has kept about 300 people out of prison in the last five years. "The most powerful thing we can do with someone who is in the criminal justice system is give them a roof over their head," Murphy says.

While both Seattle and King County have a lot of work to do to clean up the prison mess, a temporary fix is already underway. On June 30, all nine members of the King County Council introduced legislation that could extend the 2012 deadline another "couple years," according to County Council Member Dow Constantine, who's been working with Highland Park residents on the jail issue. "If a new jail... is needed, the county will probably [take] the lead," Constantine adds.

Later next month, Seattle will also finish up two feasibility studies to decide whether to build a jail with several Eastside cities. But don't be surprised if the city and the county find a way to work things out. recommended

jonah@thestranger.com