With all the attention on police funding, efforts to reduce the King County jail budget have gone largely unnoticed.
The pandemic prompted King County to pull millions of dollars from the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention to prevent COVID-19 from spreading among those incarcerated. Now Seattle and county leaders are angling to make those jail reductions permanent, redirecting that money to community groups for housing and other projects.
Yet they must not shirk their responsibility to bolster mental-health services for those in custody — a need so dire the King County auditor called them on the oversight.
Funding jails isn’t politically popular. But detention is an essential component of law enforcement. It should be as rehabilitative as possible, especially for those with behavioral-health disorders.
Soon after the pandemic began, King County implemented restrictions to reduce the jail population and allow for social distancing. While offenders booked on felonies went to jail, those arrested for most misdemeanors — with the exception of domestic violence and driving under the influence — were released.
These reductions in misdemeanor bookings are here to stay, no matter what happens with COVID.
Meanwhile, conditions in the downtown King County Detention Facility, one of the largest providers of psychiatric beds in the state, raises concerns of inadequate interventions that can mean life and death.
“Even with a reduced overall population in 2020, the jail does not have enough psychiatric housing to provide consistent care to the increasing number of people with serious mental illness in custody,” according to King County Auditor Kymber Waltmunson.
Between 2017 and the fourth quarter of 2019, the need for psychiatric housing in the jail increased by 27%, the auditor determined, but the number of beds in the psychiatric housing unit stayed the same.
According to the auditor: Since the fourth quarter of 2019, on average each day, more than 10 people who need psychiatric housing are not placed in suitable units. Four suicides took place between 2017 and 2020. None took place in units with suicide-resistant cells.
Increases in homelessness, substance abuse and mental illness contributed to an increased demand for mental-health services in the jail, the auditor said.
Despite this pressing need, funding is going somewhere else.
The Metropolitan King County Council’s adopted 2021-2022 budget cut $1.9 million from the DAJD as part of the plan to maintain the daily jail population at the current level of about 1,300 from about 1,900 pre-pandemic.
The city of Seattle contracts with King County to provide jail and related services — including psychiatric care — for defendants booked and charged with misdemeanors through Seattle Municipal Court. In 2019, the city paid $17.7 million for jail space, including psychiatric services.
Last year, as the numbers of people in jail dropped, Seattle renegotiated its contract with King County and reduced its payments. About $10 million was redirected to backfill the city’s general fund.
In April, Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine and council members from both governments announced $16 million would be “repurposed” from jail operations and directed to community health and housing programs in the next two years.
As part of the upcoming budget process, the Seattle City Council should revisit its contract with King County and boost funding for psychiatric services in the jail.
Reducing the number of people in detention is a laudable and necessary goal. But in the rush to defund incarceration, care should be given to those in the system, to make sure they have every chance to exit detention healthier and more stable than when they arrived.