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Spokane County Commissioners divided over timeline of $1.7 billion jail measure

The current Spokane County Jail tower on the county campus as seen in spring of 2021.
Rebecca White
The current Spokane County Jail tower on the county campus as seen in spring of 2021.

Two Spokane County Commissioners' proposal to delay a vote on new jail failed Monday.

The $1.7 billion public safety measure will fund a new jail, as well as other criminal justice efforts. Voters will decide on it in less than four months.

Two county commissioners, Chris Jordan and Amber Waldref, said the vote should be delayed nine months. They argue the county hasn’t reached out to the community to see what programs they need, or want, and haven’t considered the impact reform may have on how many jail beds will be needed.

“If you’re asking us for $1.7 billion dollars, how will this over time improve our system?" Waldref said.

In a meeting Monday, Waldref and Jordan were overruled by the other three, conservative county commissioners. In a press release after the vote, Jordan said voters need a clearer plan.

“Additional time would have given us an opportunity to develop a strong plan that improves facilities while reducing crime, reforming our system, investing in treatment, and making our community safer," he said. "Unfortunately, the Board refused to consider making this a better plan, instead voting to shut down the discussion.”

The three conservative commissioners, Al French, Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns argued that the jail debate has gone on for over a decade, and said efforts to delay were a political distraction.

"We have left it to the experts to tell us the size, not special interest community groups that will come and tell us we need less beds," Kerns said. "We are guided by history, we are guided by facts. We can't tell the future, but history I think is a pretty good guide when your looking at trends."

According to presentationsSpokane County Jail Director Mike Sparber has given the commissioners in April, he believes the county will need 1,300 jail beds by 2028. Currently, there are on average more than 800 inmates a day incarcerated at the county's two facilities.

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels, who also attended the meeting, said more jail beds were the only way to address increases in crime.

“I know there are members of our community that don't think we should be locking people up,” he said. “But they're absolutely ignorant to the reality that there is going to be certain people no matter how many programs we put them through, no matter how many times we put them in treatment, the only thing that will get their attention is a jail bed, or the threat of a jail bed.”

Commissioners plan to launch a public information campaign about the new jail complex, which includes a new facility on the county campus which will have more beds, and space to hold programs for inmates. The plan also calls for mothballing the Geiger facility, a former military barrack turned jail on the West Plains.

The county will get $1 billion from the measure and cities will get about $700 million.

County Commissioners and county employees have discussed the new jail amongst themselves during public meetings, and in front of several city councils, but have not yet held any townhalls, or other voter outreach efforts.

Rebecca White is a 2018 graduate of Edward R Murrow College of Communication at Washington State University. She's been a reporter at Spokane Public Radio since February 2021. She got her start interning at her hometown paper The Dayton Chronicle and previously covered county government at The Spokesman-Review.