Seattle Mayor Ed Murray is asking the City Council for authorization to sign an agreement with Snohomish County for jail services.
The Seattle City Council will decide Monday whether to let Mayor Ed Murray sign an agreement allowing some of the city’s misdemeanor inmates to be housed at the Snohomish County Jail in Everett rather than the King County Jail in Seattle.
Murray’s public-safety adviser says supplementary jail space is needed. He says various parties involved have agreed on the Snohomish County Jail as the best option.
Lawyers who represent and advocate for inmates, however, say the mayor’s proposal deserves scrutiny. They say officials should avoid sending inmates north.
Many cities in Washington contract with jurisdictions elsewhere, often to save money. The Yakima and Snohomish county jails are cheaper than the King County Jail.
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From 2002 through 2010, Seattle officials sent some inmates to the Yakima County Jail, two hours away. Then they switched to the closer Snohomish County Jail.
That agreement was meant to last through 2016. But Snohomish County ended it in 2013, shortly after a U.S. Department of Justice review found the jail was understaffed, overcrowded and lacking proper guidelines for inmates with serious medical needs.
There were eight deaths at the Snohomish County Jail from 2010 through 2013, some leading to legal claims accusing officials of denying inmates proper medical care.
A previous Seattle jail agreement with King County required the city to hold a second agreement with another jurisdiction. The current agreement doesn’t require that.
Seattle needs a new agreement with Snohomish County because the city has too many inmates at the King County Jail, said Scott Lindsay, the adviser to Murray.
The city’s agreement with King County, which runs from 2012 through 2030, caps the number of beds the city is expected to use. The cap increases each year.
The cap for 2015 is 266, but the average daily number of Seattle inmates housed at the jail has at times this year been more than 280, according to Lindsay.
That doesn’t make the King County Jail overcrowded. It and the county’s jail in Kent together can house more than 2,000 inmates, said Troy Bacon, spokesman for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. The average daily population for the jails is about 1,900.
City officials could renegotiate with King County for a higher cap, according to a memo accompanying the legislation under consideration by the council. But sending inmates north could save as much as $1 million annually, according to the memo.
The annual cost of 60 beds per day at the Snohomish County Jail would be about $2 million, versus about $3 million at the King County Jail. The legislation is among many actions the council will vote on Monday as it tweaks Murray’s proposed 2016 budget.
Under the proposed agreement, the city would pay only for beds used, noted Lisa Daugaard, policy director for the Public Defender Association. Daugaard called that an important provision because past agreements included minimum payments.
Before drawing up a new jail agreement with Snohomish County, Murray staff weighed sending inmates back to the Yakima County Jail or to the SCORE jail in Des Moines, which is operated by a group of South King County cities, Lindsay said.
The mayor’s staff consulted with Seattle Municipal Court judges and public defenders in selecting the Snohomish County Jail above the others, Lindsay said.
Presiding judge Kimi Kondo was unavailable for an interview this week, said Seattle Municipal Court spokesman Gary Ireland. He said Murray staff did speak with court stakeholders and ask for input about the mayor’s plan to sign a new agreement.
“With any jail contract, the court would emphasize ensuring that the health, safety and rights of defendants are protected,” Ireland said.
If the council authorizes Murray to sign the new agreement with Snohomish County, a Seattle Police Department screener would make sure no inmates with serious medical conditions are sent north, Lindsay said.
In addition, only inmates serving sentences will be sent to the Snohomish County Jail — not inmates with pending charges. Those details are not part of the draft agreement Murray has given the council.
Public defenders have mixed feelings about the proposed agreement, said Leslie Brown, spokeswoman for the King County Department of Public Defense.
“We don’t want to see our clients incarcerated, and we hope to work with the mayor’s office to reduce the demand on jail beds,” Brown said. “We also don’t want to see our clients far away from their families and community. However, the mayor’s choice of Snohomish County as a secondary jail is the site that’s least harmful to our clients.”
Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary has overseen reforms at the Snohomish County Jail since taking it over in 2013, including new medical-screening procedures.
But Nick Straley, an attorney in Seattle with Columbia Legal Services’ Institutions Project, said he would like additional information on whether those improvements have made the facility safe enough for Seattle inmates.
“The public should be made to feel comfortable that this is an appropriate location to house people,” Straley said. “We’re concerned some issues haven’t been resolved.”
He said officials should focus on reducing Seattle’s misdemeanor-inmate population through alternatives such as suspended sentences and home monitoring.
Seattle’s misdemeanor inmate population has declined since the 1990s, when the daily average was over 400. It has mostly hovered in the upper 200s for 10 years now.