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Jail Bait 

Three GOP candidates, one crowded jail. What to do?

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To avoid crowding, the Kootenai County Jail expanded in 2002 to hold 325 beds. By 2007, the county was already averaging 345 inmates a night. The county paid — and still pays — for surplus prisoners to be held elsewhere.

The overcrowding isn’t going away. But voters in 2009 shot down a $57 million jail-expansion proposal.

That’s the dilemma facing the three Republicans running for Kootenai County Sheriff in next week’s primary election. One of them will be chosen on May 15 to run against a slate of three independent candidates aiming to replace retiring Sheriff Rocky Watson in the November general election.

Each Republican candidate has his own answer to the jail’s woes.

Keith Hutcheson is a former sheriff’s deputy with Benewah and Kootenai counties. Most recently, he served as police chief for the Coeur d’Alene tribe. Hutcheson, 44, says his solution is an inexpensive one.

He says the Pierce Clegg Work Release Center, located in Dalton Gardens, can be refashioned into a minimum-security jail. While touring the center, he says, he was shocked to find the 128-bed facility nearly empty.

In 2000, about 70 people used the center per day. That number is currently closer to about 10 per day. Hutcheson envisions raising the security standards to house minimum-security prisoners for pennies on the dollar.

“How come we’re not using these beds?” he asks.

Kootenai County Sheriff’s Major Ben Wolfinger says that plan is a pipe dream. Wolfinger, who’s been with the Sheriff’s Office for 29 years, is one of Hutcheson’s opponents.

“The building would not pass fire code to have a lockdown facility,” he says.

Wolfinger says if neither the voters nor the commissioners can find the political will for an expansion, the current practice of paying to house inmates must remain.

“What do the people want, and what do the commissioners want?” Wolfinger says. “I think there’s no simple answer to that.”

A regional economist said a new facility would benefit the area by adding construction and other jobs, according to a 2009 presentation on the jail expansion made by Kootenai County Commissioners and Watson, the retiring sheriff. The expansion would also benefit locals because, rather than sending money outside the county to ship out inmates, it would be spent inside the county.

The 2009 presentation also cites several arguments for the expansion. One is the need to keep rival gang members separated. Another is that the number of inmates requiring attention for medical or mental-health reasons has risen.

The annual average daily inmate population increased from 212 in 2002 to 345 in 2007, a 38.5-percent increase, according to the presentation.

The 2009 expansion proposal would have allowed the county to house 782 prisoners. Currently, prisoners the county doesn’t have space for are transferred to facilities in Republic, Wash., and Thompson Falls, Mont. In 2009, the county estimated it would cost $52 million over 10 years to keep sending surplus inmates to other jails.

John Green, the third GOP candidate, says he’s skeptical of the conventional wisdom involving the jail. Green, 53, is a former Texas lawman turned Idaho attorney.

“The current administration claims there’s a terrible overcrowding problem,” he says. “I suspect we’re not getting the whole story.”

Green says the county just needs to change the way it classifies inmates. Currently, some prisoners considered more dangerous are housed alone in a room with two beds, according to Green.

“They’re wasting jail space, in that regard,” he says, adding that those prisoners aren’t necessarily dangerous and can be classified differently. “I suspect it can at least be alleviated.”

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