Facing staff shortages and a surge in coronavirus cases, and describing inhumane conditions in King County jails, public defenders and corrections officers are asking the county to stop booking people awaiting charges on nonviolent felony offenses.

The proposal, which is opposed by the county prosecutor’s office, is an effort to further reduce jail populations, which have already fallen significantly since the outbreak of the pandemic nearly two years ago.

At that time, in March 2020, County Executive Dow Constantine ordered corrections officials to stop jailing people accused of most misdemeanors. Average jail populations quickly fell from about 1,900 to around 1,350, where they have remained.

But the omicron-fueled surge in COVID cases has had profound impacts on the county’s downtown jail and its jail in Kent, officials said.

Public defenders and corrections officials Tuesday talked about lockdowns forced by staffing shortages and quarantine concerns, resulting in very limited opportunities for the incarcerated to access showers, phones and the commissary.

“Fear that someone may miss a court date is not a reason to keep them locked in a cell for days at a time; no showers, no phone calls, no windows, cold food, but that’s where we are right now,” said Elbert Aull, a public defender who works at the Maleng Regional Justice Center in Kent. “We’ve noticed an alarming, alarming decline in our in-custodied clients’ personal hygiene.”

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The proposal would largely prevent the booking of people accused of offenses like burglary, car theft, failure to register as a sex offender and drug dealing.

The county says that as of Tuesday, there are 61 positive coronavirus cases and 63 additional people in quarantine, out of the 1,372 currently in custody. That’s down from just two weeks ago when there were nearly 200 positive cases and nearly 250 in quarantine.

Among the county jail system’s 900 or so employees, 195 have tested positive in just the last seven weeks, the county said. That’s more than tested positive through the first 21 months of the pandemic. The county also has 84 open corrections officer positions and is offering hiring bonuses to try to fill them. King County employees are required to be vaccinated.

Dennis Folk, president of the King County Corrections Guild, said he himself has been off work for the last couple weeks as he recovers from COVID. He described staffing shortages so severe that officers are sleeping in empty cells because they’re exhausted from mandatory overtime shifts but have to work another one the next day.

“I ask you are we operating a safe, secure and humane detention facility?” Folk said at a meeting of the Metropolitan King County Council’s law and justice committee Tuesday. “I would say you’re not.”

Corrections and law enforcement officials stressed how much has already been done to reduce the number of people in jail.

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John Diaz, director of Adult and Juvenile Detention for King County, said that the number of people booked into King County Jail last year was about half what it was in 2019.

“We significantly reduced the amount of people coming into the jail,” Diaz said. “We went almost two years with doing a very good job and then we went through this variant that has just raced through the jail.”

King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg noted that the reduction in jail population has happened even as the county has seen a surge in shootings and crime.

The vast majority of people in jail, more than 80%, Satterberg said, have either a pending violent offense or other serious charge like a sex offense, domestic violence or a gun charge. An additional 15% or so have either multiple past convictions, face multiple charges or have a history of failing to appear in court, he said.

A further restriction on booking those accused of nonviolent felonies, Satterberg said, “is going to result in some cases where people are released where you don’t want them released.”

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Jail policy is largely set by the county executive. In a prepared statement Tuesday morning, Constantine said they are “committed to doing what’s best for our frontline employees, people in custody, and visitors, including the attorneys and other professionals who serve the jail population.”

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He noted that all jail employees are vaccinated, that everyone incarcerated is offered vaccination and that more than 60% of those incarcerated are vaccinated.

Chase Gallagher, a Constantine spokesperson, said they think the current booking policies “strike the correct balance.”

Councilmember Claudia Balducci said she did not favor a change in booking policy even as she had “a lot of concern when I hear about people being locked down 23 hours a day.”

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay said that the steps the county has taken to reduce jail populations have not been enough.

“With all the steps we’ve taken we’re still seeing people locked up in dark cells for 23 hours a day, and that’s scary and that’s inhumane,” Zahilay said.