After years of worrying that King County jails would become packed beyond capacity — and telling cities they must send their misdemeanor...

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After years of worrying that King County jails would become packed beyond capacity — and telling cities they must send their misdemeanor inmates elsewhere — county officials now say they’re facing a regional glut of jail space.

The county’s two jails in Seattle and Kent have seen an overall drop in inmate numbers over the past decade even as seven South County cities build a new jail in Des Moines to make sure they will have somewhere to send their prisoners.

Managers of the county jails and the Des Moines project say all the cells will be needed sometime in the future. For now, the county jails are competing with others for contracts to house inmates from cities, and officials are considering whether to lower their per-prisoner price.

Snohomish County, for example, charges just over half the price King County charges for each day a prisoner is held.

Claudia Balducci, director designee of the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, spoke of Snohomish and other jurisdictions when she quipped to a Metropolitan King County Council committee Tuesday, “They will not be undersold, because they really need to fill their beds. So do we.”

The growing number of unfilled cells represents a dramatic turnaround from 2002, when then-King County Executive Ron Sims told cities they would have to remove all their misdemeanor inmates from the county jails so that taxpayers wouldn’t be on the hook to build a third, expensive lockup.

By last May, the abundance of jail space had become so apparent that Seattle and four suburban cities suspended their search for a regional jail site and King County agreed to let them continue using the county jail through 2020.

In September, County Executive Dow Constantine reduced the amount of a planned increase in the fee charged for holding cities’ inmates. Balducci said she will study whether more cuts are needed to keep King County jails competitive.

The county jails hold felons, inmates arrested for misdemeanors outside cities, and prisoners arrested by cities and the state Department of Corrections (DOC).

Bob Thomas, a senior county auditor, told the County Council committee that the number of inmates had taken a “substantial and unprecedented” nose-dive over the past three years and that the county stands to lose millions of dollars a year if cities move their prisoners elsewhere and the county fails to reduce costs.

The loss could total $9 million to $15 million in jail fees, according to a new county audit.

So far, the county hasn’t done enough to reduce costs, the auditor’s report said. While jail costs went up 10 percent between 2007 and 2009, the decline in inmate numbers pushed up the cost per prisoner 24.6 percent.

The number of “county-responsible inmates” — felons and misdemeanor offenders arrested in unincorporated areas — dropped from an average daily population of about 2,000 in 2007 to 1,500 in 2009.

Adding in inmates sent by cities and the state DOC, the population is still 900 below the capacity of 3,039.

While county inmate numbers are dropping, cities are continuing to send growing numbers of misdemeanor offenders to jails — mostly the King County and Yakima County jails — said Penny Bartley, executive director of SCORE, the South Correctional Entity jail in Des Moines.

It is expensive and inefficient for cities to transport inmates to Yakima and back, but they are doing so because King County had not wanted the prisoners, Bartley said. “Three hundred people are sitting over there and they’re sitting there for a reason.”

Suburban cities have told county officials they plan to shift about 62 inmates from the King County jails to SCORE’s $56 million Des Moines jail after it opens next September..

In addition, Kirkland bought a former Costco Home store in Totem Lake that will be converted to a public-safety facility that will include a jail. Shoreline city staffers told City Council members in September they expect to “dramatically reduce” use of the King County Jail by shifting to Snohomish County.

Bellevue staff said earlier they hope to avoid the high county cost by switching to the new Des Moines jail in 2012.

Balducci said she doesn’t know why the inmate numbers have already dropped, noting it is unusual for jail populations to drop amid an economic downturn.

One reason the county’s inmate population has slid while many cities’ numbers have not is the county has invested in drug and mental-health courts that emphasize treatment over incarceration, and in housing homeless people who are otherwise frequently jailed, County Council legislative analyst Clifton Curry said.

Reducing jail spending is difficult in part because a rising percentage of inmates have severe mental problems and may be suicidal — requiring extremely close monitoring under an agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice, Balducci said. A few inmates in the jail or in a hospital require costly one-on-one supervision.

The King County Corrections Guild, which represents jail guards, warns that eliminating too many positions would jeopardize the safety of guards, inmates and the public. Guild President Doug Justus said next year’s budget will cut 37 correction-officer jobs, forcing the remaining guards to sometimes work 16-hour shifts. “That’s not safe,” he said.

After the council defied the guild by eliminating officers’ jobs earlier in the decade, the union responded by sponsoring an initiative that ultimately went to the ballot and reduced the size of the council from 13 members to 9.

Councilmember Kathy Lambert said the guild’s lobbyist, former County Councilmember Chris Vance, has told her and other members the guild could put forward another initiative if guard positions are cut.

“The subject’s come up and I’m just tired of hearing it,” Lambert said, adding that the council wasn’t influenced by the threat.

Vance said that was not true and that “the guild was not planning on an initiative.”

The auditor’s report said jail managers failed to accurately forecast inmate population and didn’t take sufficient steps to cut costs as the number of inmates dropped.

The report recommended consolidating inmates in a smaller number of units, double-bunking prisoners at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent, cutting booking costs, putting an independent office in charge of inmate-population forecasts, and doing a comprehensive study of costs and fees.

If inmate numbers continue to drop, the county could consider closing the Kent jail, the audit report suggested.

The council’s adopted 2011 budget directs jail managers to act on some of those recommendations.

Keith Ervin: 206-464-2105 or kervin@seattletimes.com