The King County Council is set to consider a bill Tuesday to transfer about 50 people confined in the county jails to a regional jail in Des Moines, as correctional officer staffing shortages cause a “crisis situation” at the two county jails. 

“The downtown jail, and our other jails, are not safe places because of the staffing crisis,” said Council Member Girmay Zahilay in an interview with the Stranger Thursday. 

Shuffling 50 people to the South Correctional Entity, also known as SCORE, would cost the county about $3.5 million over two years. In its 2023-2024 budget, the county included $3.5 million to fund jail capacity mitigation.

The proposal comes as staffing shortages and a rising daily jail population coincided with a sharp increase in people dying while in King County jails. The ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit at the end of February alleging the county was not providing people incarcerated at the jail adequate access to court and medical care. 

King County operates two jails; one in Seattle, and one in Kent. About a fifth of the correctional officer positions were vacant as of March 16, according to the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. This leaves about 400 people to manage a population of just under 1,500 people, according to a jail population report from March 18.

Since August 2021, the suicide rate at the downtown jail has exceeded national averages, according to a Seattle Times article from September. Five people died by suicide in 12 months.

Easing some of the problems by moving people to another space makes sense, Zahilay said. The idea, he added, is to send people who do not have regular court appearances. People with significant medical or mental health needs would not be considered for transfer, either, he said. 

But the county's Department of Public Defense expresses concern that the move may also reduce access to justice. 

According to Zahilay, defenders want to maintain 24/7 walk-in access to clients, private interview rooms, internet, and overall not to lose any of the basic accommodations provided by the King County jails. Defenders also want regular reporting on the jail contract and on justice access conditions. 

SCORE also does not have in-person visitations, while King County jails resumed visitation in November. Zahilay doesn’t like that.

To address those issues, he plans to introduce two amendments. One would take on the access-to-justice concerns brought by public defenders, and the other would ensure the King County Executive cannot decide to extend the contract without the approval of the council.

Sending people to Des Moines is a temporary solution, Zahilay said. “The long-term solution is closing down an obsolete jail,” he added.

In February, after the ACLU of Washington filed its lawsuit, activists called on King County Executive Dow Constantine to follow through on his promise to close the downtown facility. The county has not released details of this plan, though Constantine mentioned the “1980s jail” in his March State of the County address.

The county did include an additional million dollars in its budget for hiring incentives for correctional officers, as well as about $4 million to add 15 correctional officer positions to handle the rise in jail population. 

In August, King County signed a $150,000 contract for CGL Companies LLC to study best practices for staffing the jail. Noah Haglund, spokesperson for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, expects the report at the end of April.

In September, both correctional officers and public defenders said King County should stop jailing nonviolent felony offenders to reduce jail populations. The county did not embrace that approach. Instead, in his State of the County address, Constantine talked about the state’s failure to move people out of the jail and into treatment after the court deems them not competent to stand trial. State law requires this transfer to take place within seven days.

A February 7 report from the King County Prosecutor’s office showed about 80 people waiting for competency restoration services, with the state failing to provide treatment to some of the people in the jail for more than a year, according to Casey McNerthney, spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office.

The King County Council is scheduled to discuss the contract with SCORE at its meeting at 1:30 pm on Tuesday, March 21 in room 1001 at the King County Courthouse. People can attend the meeting in person or virtually. The council will hear public comment, and people can also submit public comment by email before 10 am on Tuesday.

That said, the council may end up waiting another week to vote on the bill.