When the city of Seattle announced its plan last May to build a seven-acre municipal jail in Highland Park, Haller Lake, or Interbay, neighbors made a stink at public meetings about the jail-siting process, but were told the city had no other choice.
The city's long-standing lease on several hundred beds in the downtown King County jail is up in 2012, and the county has told Seattle that it needs to find a new home for people arrested for misdemeanors like drunk driving.
The county has projected an increase in the number of beds it will need to house felons over the next decade, which means that cities like Bellevue, Seattle, and Renton will need to find somewhere else to hold misdemeanants.
Now a group of activists who say they're dissatisfied with the city's lack of transparency and refusal to explore other ways of reducing the local jail population have filed a citizens initiative, Initiative 100, to give voters the final say on whether the city builds a new jail. The initiative would also require the city to figure out "how incarceration rates could be decreased."
It was only a matter of time. The city has held numerous public meetings on the jail-siting issue, none of which have done much to calm outraged neighbors. Highland Park residents screamed that it would be a social injustice to put a jail at either of two prospective sites in their poor neighborhood; Haller Lake residents and Aurora Avenue businesses cried foul over the possibility of adding more crime to their already seedy strip; and Magnolia and Queen Anne residents remained suspiciously quiet over the city's plan, likely guessing that the city wouldn't be stupid enough to put a jail in the middle of their rich, likely-to-be-litigious hoods.
Real Change executive director Tim Harris, who has taken a leading role in the anti-jail group Citizens for Efficiency and Fairness in Public Safety, says the city-led jail-siting meetings he's attended have been "some of the most disempowering meetings I've ever been to. [Your] concerns are captured on a piece of butcher paper, and that's as far as it goes."
Neighborhood activists like former Highland Park Action Committee chair Dorsal Plants—who recently announced he's running for city council—have also been complaining for months about the city's lack of outreach to communities that could be affected by the jail. "There's still people unaware of the [siting] process," Plants says.
"We've been trying to... let people know where we are with things," says Katherine Schubert-Knapp, a spokeswoman for the city's fleets and facilities department. "It's a tough project. We wish we weren't in this situation either, but we're losing all of our jail beds and we have to do something with our misdemeanants."
In addition to an extension of the jail contract, Harris's group is asking the city to develop "a strategy to address racial disparity" in arrest rates. For instance, a 2001 University of Washington study found that 63 percent of those arrested for drugs were black while only 19 percent were white. The group is also seeking the expansion of programs like Communities United in Rainier Beach and a King County housing-voucher program, which have been shown to reduce recidivism between 30 and 82 percent. Harris says, "There are more effective... ways to be able to look at the problems people are being jailed for."
"It's been a long time coming," Harris adds. "There are a lot of really good arguments for not building the jail."
If the city and county fail to reach a deal in their ongoing negotiations, the city is eyeing six potential sites—one each in Highland Park, Shoreline, Interbay, Bellevue, downtown Seattle, and unincorporated King County.
The fate of I-100 remains to be seen. In 2002, Harris pushed an initiative to increase funding for homeless shelters to $400 million a year; that initiative was ultimately shelved when the group cut a deal with the city to increase shelter funding. So far, Harris says, organizers have collected "several hundred signatures." That's a long way from the 25,000 they'll need if they want to make a vote on the jail a reality.