Report: Reforms Could Help Reduce Spokane Jail Population

Jan 8, 2020

A consultant projects the Spokane County jail population could be reduced by employing a series of reforms.
Credit Doug Nadvornick/SPR

Spokane County could lower its jail population by nearly 200 inmates during the next five years if it continues with a series of initiatives.

That was the message Wednesday to a committee of Spokane criminal justice professionals and advocates. They endorsed recommendations that could help county commissioners craft a jail-related ballot measure.

Wendy Ware from the JFA Institute says Spokane is doing what other cities around the country are doing. It’s exploring ways to divert people away from its jail and into treatment or other needed services. If it continues with that strategy, she says, the county could see some significant savings.

“By 2025, there should be a reduction of about 175 beds at a minimum, if everything is enacted and put into place as expected," Ware said.

Some diversion programs are already working. For example, a project that pairs mental health specialists with Spokane police officers and sheriff’s deputies on patrol has been expanded because it’s been so successful.

There are other programs in the works or under consideration. One, gleaned from Maryland, would change the jail’s booking process into a triage system. Mike Sparber is the Spokane County jail director.

“The individual is booked. They have a magistrate up front. They have pre-trial services up front. So if the individual comes in, they have an opportunity to assess the charge, determine whether or not this individual should be booked into the jail or they could released on their own recognizance," Sparber said.

That could potentially all be done before the person steps foot in the jail.

“We’re looking at, quite frankly, some of the portable construction trailers of that nature, that you see on construction sites. We don’t need a lot of space to do it," he said.

Last year, the sheriff’s office performed about 21,000 bookings. Sparber estimates this proposal could reduce that by 3,000 and save the county a lot of money.

Some of the other proposals endorsed by the Spokane Justice Task Force on Wednesday are simple and inexpensive, such as texting more frequent reminders to people who have pending court dates and setting up a telephone hotline where people could call to obtain their court information. Others are pricier, such as expanding pre-trial diversion programs.

Consultant Wendy Ware recommends the county carry out some of these programs before considering a new jail.

“Construction of a jail facility is always going to be expensive. I think the best financial situation for Spokane would be to put in place these initiatives and continue to expand on them so there would not need to be any new construction," Ware said.

She estimates the county can expect to spend between $200 and $300 million for a new facility if it manages to lower its population, $300 to $400 million if the population remains the same or even moves higher.

The Spokane County commissioners will decide which direction to go. Sometime soon, the task force’s recommendations are expected to be presented to the board.

 

Spokane County could lower its jail population by nearly 200 inmates during the next five years if it continues with a series of reforms.

That was the message today [Wednesday] to a committee of Spokane criminal justice professionals and advocates. The panel endorsed recommendations that could help county commissioners craft a jail-related ballot measure.

Wendy Ware from the JFA Institute says Spokane is doing what other cities around the country are doing. It’s exploring ways to divert people away from its jail and into treatment or other needed services. If it continues with that strategy, she says, the county could significantly reduce the pressure on the jail.

“By 2025, there should be a reduction of about 175 beds at a minimum, if everything is enacted and put into place as expected," Ware said.

Some diversion programs are already working. A project that pairs mental health specialists with Spokane police officers and sheriff’s deputies on patrol has been expanded because it’s been so successful.

There are other programs in the works or under consideration. One would change the jail’s booking process into a triage system, based upon a system in Maryland.

“The individual is booked. They have a magistrate up front. They have pre-trial services up front. So if the individual comes in, they have an opportunity to assess the charge, determine whether or not this individual should be booked into the jail or they could released on their own recognizance," said Spokane County Jail Director Mike Sparber.

That could potentially all be done before the person steps foot in the jail. Sparser says the booking process could be moved into a temporary structure next to the facility. He says the idea is still in its early phases, but has potential.

The Spokane Justice Task Force endorsed a series of proposals and goals at its Wednesday meeting. They could soon be formulated into recommendations presented to the county commissioners.