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Big House Blues 

by Dan Richardson


The county jail is jammed up with inmates, and the city's tired of paying for their share. It's no wonder, since each inmate at the Spokane County Jail costs the city $60 a day, plus a $71 booking fee, which adds up to millions of dollars each year.


But the county pays, too. According to one county planning estimate from 2000, if the jail's population continues to grow, the county could end up spending as much as $22 million to build a 540-bed annex to its jail, which is near the courthouse.


In the coming months, both the county and the city plan to hire consultants to examine their criminal justice systems. With declining sales tax revenues and a crunched budget, city officials want to know how they can save a few dollars. County officials want to figure out if they can do something to stem the flow of jail inmates.


"It's an audit. It's a performance thing. It's a look at the whole criminal justice system," says Randy Withrow, Mayor John Powers' chief of staff, about the city's consultant-hiring plans for this summer. "Let's make sure we're spending the money in the right places."


Keeping up with the bad guys -- or, you know, the alleged bad guys, as most people in jail are awaiting trial -- is an expensive proposition. Counting the police, plus prosecutors and public defenders, municipal court, probation services and jail fees, the city will spend more than $45 million this year -- about 38 cents of every dollar it takes to run Spokane. By contrast, streets will get just six and a half cents from each public dollar.


Says Withrow: "We spent close to $5 million keeping people in jail last year. That figure needs to be reduced."


The six-story county jail was built, at one inmate per cell, for about 540 inmates in 1985, says Capt. Dick Collins, the jail commander for the Sheriff's Department. By 1997, the place was filling up.


The Geiger Corrections Center, a minimum-security and work-release jail counterpart near the Spokane International Airport, quit taking large numbers of federal inmates about that time, says Collins. For a while, Geiger caught the overflow of low-risk offenders from the downtown facility.


That worked fine until recently. Today the jail's average daily population, from minimum-risk check-forgers to high-risk killers, stands at about 700, according to Collins. (On Monday morning, it was 615 men and 90 women.) Many are bunked up two per eight-by-12-foot cell, and the question is again staring down county officials, says Collins: "What will we do with all these inmates?"


Of the inmate population, just 15 or 20 percent are city inmates, the ones for whom the City of Spokane has to pick up the 60 bucks a day room and board.


The city only pays for people arrested within the city limits and charged with misdemeanors, officials say. People charged with felonies are the county's responsibility, whether they're from city or country. (Geiger charges just $38 a day for city inmates, but they help supply jail labor and reduce costs.)


Withrow and City Administrator Jack Lynch say with that kind of money at stake, it makes sense to hire a consultant to help tighten up the jail and the rest of the criminal justice system. One bit of evidence: Yakima County takes out-of-county inmates and charges just $48 a day, with no booking fee and with transportation covered.


At the county jail alone, the city's portion is about 120 prisoners a day. If the city were to squeeze a $14 daily savings per prisoner, that works out to about $600,000 fewer tax dollars each year.


That's the kind of tightening Collins and county commissioners hope a consultant can find for the county's system, too, only in trimming excess people instead of dollars.


"Is it something you can do something about, or something you can't do anything about?," Collins asks rhetorically.


That just might be a $22 million question.
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