Report Claims New Jail Imperative
Committee opts for $12 million facility
By Kathleen Boyd, S-E Staff Reporter
The issue of whether or not a new jail is needed in Stevens County was discussed at a public meeting hosted by the Stevens County Board of Commissioners.
The Detention Facility Needs Citizen Advisory Committee, made up of residents from all areas of the county, has spent the last 15 months studying the Issue. They presented their formal recommendation to the public at the Nov. 17 meeting.
The committee recommended building a $12 million dollar facility which would be built to the south of the Courthouse and would Incorporate a skybrldge that would connect to a renovated second floor of the courthouse.
Those attending the meeting were met with a comprehensive explanation of why the committee was formed. the data gathered concerning costs of operation of both the present facility and several alternatives, and the committee's recommendation for a new facility. The inadequacies of the present jail were-also detailed.
Need for changes obvious
The jail, which Is now housed In the basement of the courthouse, has several pressing issues that need to be dealt with. According to the study, the jail's narrow corridors, blind corners, tiny cells and day rooms present an ever-present danger to corrections officers dealing with inmates. The cramped quarters can lead to aggressive behavior by Inmates and 10 of the 11 permanent jail staff have been hurt while on duty. One female staff member is on permanent disability because of injuries she suffered while trying to help restrain an unruly inmate.
The cramped quarters also make It hard to recruit new corrections officers, according to Corrections Chief Shane Moffitt.
Also, because of the lack of an outside exercise area, inmates cannot be held for more than 90 days. This fact, along with the chronic overcrowding of the present facility, which only holds 43 inmates, means that Stevens County spends over $250,000 a year on out-of-county jail keep costs by sending prisoners to Ferry and Spokane Counties.
The option proposed by the committee would Incorporate a new jail building that would accommodate 116 prisoners.
Stevens County Sheriff Craig Thayer feels that this option would solve most of the problems of the current facility.
Not only would a new jail of this size be more than large enough to hold current jail populations, it could potentially generate future income by renting out cells to other counties, Thayer said.
Other options studied by the committee spanned everything from building a completely new Law and Justice Center which would incorporate a new jail, sheriff's office, District and Superior Courtrooms and related support space at a proposed cost of almost $22 million dollars, to simply remodeling the existing jail into a holding facility and contracting with other counties for jail beds at a cost of approximately $2.5 million.
Opinions from those attending the informational meeting ran the gamut from outright objection to a new jail to full fledged support.
Nora Callahan, who has worked for many years as the executive director of the November Coalition to fight stiff drug sentencing, felt that a new jail would keep judges from considering alternative sentences.
"How much money are we going to spend on locking people up when maybe we could consider some alternatives?" she asked.
Also speaking against the new jail was defense attorney Helen "Dee" Hokom. She said she felt that officials should concentrate on the committee's stated goal of reducing incarceration by 25 percent through sentencing alternatives such as electronic home-monitoring and work release programs.
Unfortunately, according to Stevens County Prosecuting Attorney Jerry Wetle, such alternatives are unrealistic. "In my opinion, home monitoring is a joke," Wetle said. "If you look at all the reasons that a home monitored offender can use to legally leave their house, you will find that he or she could be out every day. They can go to the doctor, to the grocery store, to their counselor, to church...there are just so many loopholes.
"I am philosophically opposed to home monitoring. I don't believe it's punishment. One of the reasons for sentencing someone for breaking the law is to hold them accountable and make them not want to break the law again. Incarceration does that, with the embarrassment that goes along with being sent to jail, as well as the misery of being locked up," Wetle said.
"I tell judges 'I'd rather you not sentence them at all than to sentence them to home monitoring,'
"It just isn't punishment in my eyes," Wetle surmised. "For this county to go to the expense and trouble of setting up a home-monitoring system, I think, would lose money rather than save it."
Welte also pointed out that most felony offenders would not qualify for home monitoring or work release. According to statute, an offender is only eligible for work release during the last six months of his sentence. Even fewer would be eligible for home-monitoring.
The current sentencing scheme in Washington State does not allow the judge much discretion in the amount of time an offender is sentenced to. In most cases, a judge must follow a strict sentencing grid that stipulates a set sentencing range for each crime, which is increased by their criminal history, if any. There Is no alternative for the judge except to declare an exceptional sentence, which most judges hesitate to do because an exceptional sentence can be appealed while a sentence within the statutory range cannot.
Barry Lamont, executive director of Rural Resources, said there is far too little money for social intervention to prevent crime, so a new jail Is a necessity. Marcus Mayor Fran Bolt said, "It's just silly to expect that the current jail, which was built when the county had 20,000 to 25,000 residents, is adequate now that we have over 40,000."
Stevens County Commissioner Malcolm Friedman asked those present to help generate support for the new jail. "Unlike schools, jails are all negative," Friedman said, "It's all our failure in society, and we're building a monument to it.
"But what we have downstairs is not upholding public safety," Friedman continued, "so I'll do all that I can."
Commissioners plan to hold another meeting In the next month or two, according to commissioner Tony Delgado. "We just can't let the fire die out," he said.
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