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March 2, 2006 - Spokesman-Review (WA)

Bi-State Effort Answer To Jail Overcrowding

By William McCrory

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

Both Spokane County and Kootenai County experience jail overcrowding and want to build bigger jails. Spokane County's could cost from $81 million to $410 million while Kootenai County estimates its jail expansion might cost as much as $50 million.

State, local and tribal leaders from Idaho and Washington and from Kootenai and Spokane counties should discuss creating a regional criminal justice center near the Idaho- Washington border. A regional center with facilities for public safety training, state correctional programs, a combined post-conviction jail, emergency management and community education is ripe for consideration.

Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk has proposed building a regional law enforcement training center between Spokane International Airport and Fairchild Air Force Base at an estimated cost of $75 million to $100 million. North Idaho has no reasonably accessible and fully equipped training center for local and tribal law enforcement officers.

One element of Sterk's proposal -- certification training for civilian bomb technicians -- would draw students from other parts of the United States, because the only other certification school is in Huntsville, Ala. That would be a revenue producer for area businesses.

In 2002 Kootenai County rejected an Idaho Department of Correction effort to put a state transition/work release center in Kootenai County. Regional leaders should reconsider that proposal. Putting a community work center, a correctional alternative placement program or both on a regional criminal justice campus makes fiscal and security sense.

It also offers correctional training and education opportunities for both criminal justice practitioners and the community. Corrections is as important as law enforcement, juvenile justice and the courts, but educating the public about corrections has been neglected.

Assessing the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the Sept. 11 commission noted: "Imagination is not a gift usually associated with bureaucracies." Though the commission was directing its criticism primarily at national-level agencies, public safety officials know that the first responders to emergencies will always come from nearby local agencies regardless of the emergency's size or national implications. Imaginative planning begins when political boundaries are not barriers.

Building on that understanding, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the National Sheriffs' Association, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Foundation collectively conducted " a project to help position state, local and tribal agencies to proactively manage a changed and continually changing police environment."

Last September, the project released a 62-page study, "Post 9-11 Policing: The Crime Control -- Homeland Security Paradigm." It acknowledged that new and stronger regional relationships improve interoperability, information exchange and training, which then prepares public safety agencies to deliver more timely and efficiently coordinated services.

The project also produced four promising practice briefs. One of them was a 48-page publication in which the participants recognize that multi-jurisdictional partnerships can have benefits far beyond counterterrorism preparation. The study notes: "Moreover, regional mutual aid agreements can be tailored to meet specific needs, address likely threats and make available the full range of existing resources that can be brought to bear quickly in times of emergency."

Funding is a prominent issue among all agencies. The project participants seemed to suggest that multi- jurisdictional partnerships, not just mutual aid agreements, can result in a greater return on investment for the taxpayer's dollar.

If the Sept. 11 commission and the post-Sept. 11 policing reports were a nudge toward multijurisdictional partnerships, then the report of the Senate Bipartisan Committee to Investigate the Preparation for and Response to Hurricane Katrina was a bulldozer. In its preface, the committee notes: "Government failed because it did not learn from past experiences, or because lessons thought to be learned were somehow not implemented.

If Sept. 11 was a failure of imagination, then Katrina was a failure of initiative. It was a failure of leadership." The report concludes: "This was not about some individual's failure of initiative. This was about organizational and societal failures of initiative. There was more than enough failure to go around."

The Spokane-Coeur d'Alene region has an opportunity to use the challenges of jail overcrowding to improve the quality of not only the region's criminal justice system but also our ability to respond to natural and manmade disasters and attacks. It is an opportunity that should not be wasted.

The first step is for government and community leaders to meet and talk. As Albert Einstein said, "The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them."

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