There are very few positive consequences of CIVID-19. But with the implementation of social-distancing, the Spokane County Jail population has shrunk by approximately 400 people, these type numbers have not been seen in over 25 years. One of the primary concerns prior to release was if these individuals in question would pose a public-safety risk.

Simply put, we have released the very people that Smart Justice reformers have long been saying we should release – mostly pre-trial defendants charged with nonviolent crimes who have failed to show up for a previous court appearance – and the sky has not fallen.
Research shows: pre-trial incarceration of people facing nonviolent charges, many of whom remain in jail only because they can’t make bail, is expensive, unfair and ineffective, and it can be replaced in many cases with community supervision without endangering the public.

The current narrative is whether to build a new jail at some point, perhaps later this year. That conversation comes on the heels of years of research and recommendations from two inter-related efforts to study the system. Both have focused on reducing the jail population through an expansion of community supervision programs for low-level, pre-trial offenders.

Currently, hundreds of people are now back with their loved ones and if not for the virus, they would still be in jail – and the sky has not fallen because they are back in our communities.

Activist have long argued that these individuals shouldn’t be jailed in the first place. The MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge, meant to study the system and find ways to reduce the jail population. The county has hired the JFA Institute to study the population and produce projections and recommendations.

Both efforts suggest that we could drop the jail population by hundreds, rely more on community supervision and supportive services, at much less cost than jailing people.

The coronavirus shows us that, when it comes to cash bail, the system is simply out of touch. There is no public safety rationale behind letting someone go if they can come up with $2,000 or $5,000 or $10,000 or even $50,000 – and keeping someone locked up only because they can’t afford bail.

Spokane County is currently considering using federal coronavirus relief money to increase jail capacity with temporary structures.

Federal money given to Spokane County to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic could be spent to expand jail capacity in the county, under a plan under consideration by county commissioners.

The proposal to erect temporary jail buildings meant to last at least 15 years was under consideration in Spokane County even before the coronavirus became a problem in Washington.

But jail officials now argue the units should be paid for with money provided by Congress through Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security, or CARES, Act funding because the extra space would allow them to keep inmates farther apart during the pandemic.

The Spokane County Jail has been overcrowded for decades and normally has between 900 and 1,000 inmates in custody between the downtown jail and the Geiger Corrections Center on the West Plains.

After COVID-19 cases were detected in Spokane County, the jail population was reduced significantly to allow inmates to social distance while incarcerated. Judges allowed inmates with low bonds, misdemeanor arrests and health conditions to be released.

Detention Services Director Mike Sparber and jail staff asked the county commissioners to consider using a portion of the $90 million the county received for COVID-19 response and recovery on fabric buildings, known as Sprung Structures. In interviews, Commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French said they were considering the proposal but had not made a decision.

Finally, after many years of framing the discussion around jail overcrowding and the need for a bigger and better jail. The data from independent consultants suggest we will find greater value by investing in reform, community supervision and supportive services, at much less cost than jailing people.

If we continue to proceed as we have always done, then it’s inevitable that we will need to build a new jail that will cost Spokane citizens millions of unnecessary dollars.