In a 7-2 vote on Tuesday, the King County Council decided to rent 50 jail beds in Des Moines, WA to reduce the population at the understaffed, deadly downtown Seattle jail. But the new, two-year, $3.5 million contract won’t make a significant difference, according to King County Executive staff. 

Moreover, the executive branch didn’t study whether the move would serve as the most efficient or effective way to reduce the population, according to testimony. 

Uncreative Solutions

King County Council Members Jeanne Kohl-Welles and Girmay Zahilay voted against the measure to transfer the inmates. 

In justifying her no vote, Kohl-Welles said the move would do little to deal with the staff shortage and expressed concern about a potential, ongoing funding request that wouldn’t lead to real solutions for the judicial system. Before voting down the bill, she called on King County Executive Dow Constantine to follow through on his promise to close the downtown jail.

“We can’t keep doing what we’ve been doing,” she said, right before the council voted to keep doing what it’s been doing.

For his part, Zahilay raised questions about whether sending people to the South Correctional Entity, also known as SCORE, worked better than other alternatives. 

During the meeting, the council touched on expanding electronic home monitoring, convening the judicial branch to get them onboard with jail alternatives, working with nonprofits to pay bail, and whether the Executive would issue booking restrictions. Zahilay said the Executive could issue restrictions for misdemeanor crimes, at a minimum. 

He ultimately voted against the contract because he did not feel the council had time to explore other options, arguing that jails and courts were not unlimited resources. 

Public Outrage

The people who showed up for public comment largely stood against the proposal. Many brought up Constantine’s promise to shut down the King County Jail. 

At one point during Tuesday’s meeting, the Council recessed after a woman told the council members to stop looking at their phones during public testimony. Council Chair Dave Upthegrove told the woman not to speak out of order. Another audience member, Peter Condit, approached the dais and pointed a finger at Council Member Rod Dembowski, who was still looking at his phone. Upthegrove asked King County Sheriff’s Officers to remove Condit and the woman. 

Condit said cops did not escort him out, but they did remove the Black woman who first spoke. Other community members at the meeting called that out as anti-Black racism. 

A King County Sheriff’s Office spokesperson said everyone was allowed to return to the meeting after the recess. 

All the Problems 

For the past several weeks, the King County Council has weighed whether to send people to SCORE.

The King County Executive’s Office pitched the idea for the transfer as a way to handle staffing shortages and a rising daily jail population. 

Part of the reason for the rising population involves courts still working through a backlog of cases that built up during the pandemic. A longer timeline for those cases translates to longer jail stays for those awaiting trial. The length of stay for more than half the jail population is upward of 90 days, according to King County Jail population data.

The average time for a homicide case to go from charges to disposition has almost doubled since before the pandemic, said Casey McNerthney, a spokesperson for the King County Prosecutor’s Office.

At the same time, both the downtown jail and King County’s jail in Kent face staffing shortages. About one-fifth of the correctional officer positions were vacant as of March 16, according to the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD). That leaves about 400 people to manage a population of just under 1,500 people.

The Kent jail is less full than the downtown jail, but it is a direct-supervision facility, which means that more people are required to watch the same number of people in the downtown jail, said Alan Nance, director of the DAJD. The department doesn’t have the staffing for that.

These working conditions, which grew to a crisis during the pandemic, prompted corrections officers to join forces with public defenders in calling on the County to release more people from jail. 

The staffing shortage and increasing population also coincided with a sharp increase in people dying while in custody. 

In the weeks since the Council started discussing the transfer, both SCORE and the downtown jail saw a person die in custody. A 58-year-old woman died in King County Jail on March 21, and a 65-year-old man died at SCORE on March 25. The King County Medical Examiner has not determined the cause of death in either case.

Since August 2021, the suicide rate at the downtown jail has exceeded national averages, according to the Seattle Times. Overall, Washington jails are dealing with a significant number of in-custody deaths.

The ACLU of Washington filed a lawsuit at the end of February alleging the county was not providing inmates adequate access to court and medical care. 

Room for More? 

Before the final vote, the council approved a few amendments to the contract. SCORE must maintain its accreditations and comply with the state’s fatality review requirements. And the King County Executive must get approval to extend the contract past two years. Constantine must also send a letter to the council if he plans to send more people to SCORE. In that case, the council would have 30 days to pass a motion to prevent more transfers. 

The King County Executive’s Office said it hoped to send 100-150 people to SCORE, which will require additional money.