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Spokane County Judge to consider amendments to jail ballot measure

In November, voters in Spokane County will be asked to approve or reject a $1.7 billion-dollar ballot measure intended to expand the downtown jail, build a community correction center, and pay for other criminal justice measures. But the ballot language doesn’t include the word jail, something a coalition of racial justice advocates and community groups say will be misleading for voters.

In a hearing Friday, Karen Lindholdt, the attorney for racial justice groups, including Spokane Community Against Racism and the Spokane NAACP, argued voters who want more behavioral health services, but oppose a new jail, could unintentionally vote for something they don’t support.

“There’s a lot of ambiguity,” Lindholt said. “Are the voters going to know what they are going to get when they vote yes and no? Voters need to know where their tax dollars are going.”

The attorney for the Spokane County, Timothy Nault, said including the word ‘jail’ would also be misleading, because a portion of the money will likely be used for reentry programs and behavioral health. He noted that cities would get 40% of the money, and can spend it on whatever criminal justice issues they want.

“The petition is grossing misleading because it would say cities and towns would have to fund a jail, when they don’t have to,” he said.

In court filings, and in the hearing Friday, the county also argued using a sales tax for a detention facility met state definition of criminal justice purposes, which means including the phrase in the ballot measure is an accurate statement to voters.

That assertion brought questions from Judge Tony Hazel, who noted from the bench that the statute says activities and services, not infrastructure.

Hazel said he will make a ruling Tuesday, and asked both sides to present new ballot language. Hazel said his request doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll rule to amend the ballot measure. He said he will consider both sides arguments over the weekend.

On average, between 800-900 people are incarcerated between Spokane County’s two detention facilities, with the bulk of people in the higher security jail downtown. If the measure passes in November, county officials say they would mothball their low-security West Plains facility, Geiger, and build a community corrections center near the existing downtown jail. They would also build a new tower expanding capacity. County officials argue Geiger, a Korean War era military barrack remodeled into a jail, is inefficient and becoming unsafe for inmates.

The two progressive county commissioners, Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, as well as several Spokane City Council Member and a representative from the Correction’s Officer Union, have all called for the measure to be delayed. They the county needs a transparent, clean plan, and more community input is needed. They’ve also said they fear it won’t pass.

County Commissioners Al French, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney, as well as Sheriff John Nowels, said they have been communicating with voters, in a recent press conference, in the media, and through a new public information website launched earlier this month.

The deadline to print ballots is September 8.