King County plans to shut down its nearly 35-year-old adult jail in a “phased closing” once the coronavirus pandemic has been controlled, according to a Tuesday statement from the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention — though county officials haven’t provided much clarity on how the plan will be executed.
King County Executive Dow Constantine, who also announced Tuesday that he plans to depopulate the county’s juvenile jail by 2025, is expected to provide more information about plans for both facilities in a public address later this week, according to Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson for Constantine’s office.
Constantine did address some questions about the proposed changes in a virtual news conference Wednesday afternoon, though he said an exact timeline for the demolition of the jail hasn’t yet been established.
“We must reimagine King County’s downtown Seattle campus, the entire campus, in light of the realities today,” he said during the conference. “And the old jail must at some point come down … Until then, we should seek to change detention and the criminal legal system to emphasize prevention, diversion, rehabilitation and harm reduction.”
At the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center (CFJC) — the county’s recently opened youth jail — officials say they’re hoping to convert its remaining detention units for “therapeutic and community use,” Gallagher wrote in an email to The Seattle Times.
Asked how Constantine plans to handle the cases of young people accused of the most severe violent crimes, Gallagher said Constantine is expected to “propose additional investments to help create safe and community-based solutions for the increasingly difficult youth cases that remain.”
Constantine noted that the closure of the Seattle jail does not mean all occupants will be sent to the Maleng Regional Justice Center (MRJC) in Kent. He also said the King County Correctional Center, which also houses people with medical and mental health needs, won’t be coming down anytime soon.
“When there is someone who is committing violence against another human being, a judge is absolutely right to ensure that person is detained or safe until they are no longer a threat to the community,” he said Wednesday. He didn’t elaborate on where people accused of violent crimes might be kept instead.
Jail counts show the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle now houses 1,326 inmates, reflecting about 570 fewer residents than in mid-March. The decrease in numbers can be at least partly attributed to an executive order Constantine signed in March, which aimed to reduce the jail population so staff and inmates could follow social distancing guidelines during the virus outbreak.
“The building, finished in 1986, was among the last of its kind,” wrote Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention director John Diaz in a Tuesday memo to his staff members. “It features a design that’s now considered obsolete. As many of you know, it’s expensive to operate and doesn’t serve our security, healthcare, or efficiency needs.”
Diaz didn’t respond to requests for further comment.
Casey McNerthney, spokesperson for the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, wrote in a statement Wednesday that the office wasn’t aware of specifics for the King County Jail or the CFJC and that it’s “looking forward to learning more from the Executive’s Office.”
“We’re at the start of a years-long process, and we’re looking forward to having in-person conversations … Even with the reduction of jail numbers since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office has still gone to court to address felony crimes and violent individuals — and we will continue to do so,” McNerthney wrote.
Constantine ended the Wednesday news conference by saying he hopes to include community input as much as possible during the process of updating Seattle’s correctional facilities.
“(We want to) rely less on that facility and think about what next phase of that will look like,” Constantine said. “Eventually that facility will be demolished … and I think that we can find a better way to interact with people who have committed crimes, even while we find a better way to use that precious real estate.”