Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Jails Aren't The Answer, But Where's CEHKC?

Last Saturday morning, I drove my tired ass out to North Seattle Community College to see the City's new jail dog and pony show. This would be the facility that King County says we no longer need, and that Seattle, out of sheer institutional momentum, will force upon the neighborhoods anyway.

I sat at a table next to some guy who looked maybe twenty-five who'd just bought a house near the proposed site. "I want to participate in the civic dialogue," he said, "and understand how these decisions are made."

"Cool," I said. "Let me simplify the process for you. The ... City ... doesn't ... care ... what ... you ... think." I don't think he believed me. He'll learn.

Back in 1999, King County projected that limited jail capacity would necessitate cities having their own facilities for misdemeanor criminals. Planning has been underway for a Seattle jail ever since. Four neighborhoods have arrived as finalists for the $110 million facility that would cost around $19 million annually to run, and, hold your breath: nobody wants it.

Now, however, the county says they were wrong. There's plenty of capacity. Among the primary reasons are jail diversion courts, work release, and housing programs that cut recidivism. The chart below, posted in The Stranger's SLOG as overflow from an excellent piece on this by Jonah Spangenthal-Lee, shows the radical decrease of the actual jail population in relation to former projections.

Things are working, but are in serious danger of moving backwards. Spangenthal-Lee writes:
As it turns out, King County's 1999 study was flat-out wrong about its projected inmate population. Neither KCJ nor RJC are operating anywhere close to capacity. By now, the county was supposed to have roughly 2,600 inmates. Instead, the county has about 2,200 and, if operating at maximum capacity—which would require an expansion at RJC—room for nearly 1,500 more between its two facilities.

According to Major William Hayes, a spokesman for KCJ, the county's projections for its jail populations have changed drastically in the last decade because of diversion programs such as drug court and work release. "We could handle quite a few more [inmates]... if we needed to," says Hayes, who adds that he's never seen a jail reach capacity in the 24 years he's been with the county.

On the other hand, several other factors could mean King County does need a new jail sooner rather than later. Because of a $68 million county budget deficit, drug court and mental-health court could soon disappear, as could the county's homeless inmate housing-voucher program, which has reportedly reduced recidivism rates between 30 and 40 percent. The loss of both programs could lead to a spike in the prison population.
And yet, no one cares. The assumption seems to be that prison populations will rise forever. According to a report from the Washington State Institute on Public Policy. Washington State incarceration rates over 1960-1980 remained largely even. Since 1980, they have more than doubled. The county jail incarceration rate grew by 184%. Similar trends have occurred across the nation. We just love, love, love, locking people up.

So much so that programs that actually work to reduce the prison population and cut costly incarceration expenses are first on the chopping block when times get tough.

The City handily dismisses all of this by deploying their favorite tactic: the straw man. Despite the fact that the city's jail population has dropped by 38% over the last decade while overall population has risen by 8%, they say, we still need a new jail. Why? Because, as City policy analyst Catherine Cornwall stated at Saturday's North Seattle forum, while diversion works "we still can't get it down to zero."

Zero? That seems a rather unrealistic goal. Why zero?

Well, because, "at this moment, no county jail beds will be available for misdemeanants by 2012." This is true, I suppose, if the county were still saying this, but they're not. They're saying the capacity is there. The City is lying. They cherry pick their facts to pretend the new jail is inevitable when nothing of the sort is true.

One would think, given that the Committee to End Homelessness in King County's own Color of Homelessness report documents the link between rising incarceration rates, the racialization of poverty, and the disproportionality of people of color among those who are homeless, that CEHKC might have something to say on this issue. One would be wrong.

The report discusses the overrepresentation of people of color in the criminal justice system, and how the absence of services, onerous restitution laws, and discrimination against ex-offenders creates a difficult downward spiral for those who are black, brown, red, and poor.
With over two million persons in prison, the United States incarcerates more of its citizens than any other nation in the world. While some might think that the reasons for such a massive prison population stem from a need to control crime and violence, no clear relationship is present between these matters. Instead, much of the growth in the U.S. prison population over the last three decades is due to the use of mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes. For instance, between 1980 and 1999 the number of state prisoners incarcerated for drug crimes increased twelve fold from 19,000 to 251,200 inmates. With respect to federal prisons this percentage increase was fourteen fold during this time period. Due to a multitude of factors, persons of color have suffered the brunt of this buildup in the U.S. prison population. For instance, over half of all persons in prison and/or jail are Black.
Also, one out of three Black men is currently under some form of correctional supervision (in jail, prison, or under parole).

With respect to other persons of color racial groups, the situation is equally disturbing. For instance, Latinos are twice as likely as Whites to be incarcerated. In addition, together with Blacks they make up 80% of all state prisoners sentenced for drug crimes.

Although Native Americans represent less than two percent of all state prisoners, due to their small population size they make up the largest prison population per capita in the U.S. Primarily assumed to be a problem that affects men of color, women of color are also becoming increasingly represented within the correctional system. For instance, women of color make up two-thirds of all women in jails and State and Federal prisons and comprise the fastest growing segment of the U.S. prison population.
So, let's think a tiny bit out of the box here. Instead of just building more and more prisons and jails, as if this were some completely inevitable law of nature, why don't we instead fix the racist fucking drug laws and support programs that work? If that seems too crazy to contemplate, here's another idea.

The Urban Institute has a new report coming out that applies the logic of Housing First to the problem of recidivism, growing prison populations, and the resource drain this represents as incarceration takes an ever-increasing share of local budgets. Providing housing to those who often inappropriately wind up in jails, they point out, makes fiscal sense and reserves jail capacity for those who actually pose a real threat to society.

A 2006 report by the Urban Institute for the Philadelphia prison system found that nearly four out of five prison releases from 1996 through 2003 were re-releases. Seventy percent of prisoners released in 2003 had "been there, done that" in the previous eight years, and about one in every five prisoners released were coming out for the second, third, even fourth time. If the city can identify the oft-imprisoned and provide services to assist their return to the community, the city will save money and otherwise wasted lives.

Some cities are finding that concentrating on cutting the number who frequent jail and use other services can slow the revolving door, cutting the jail population and saving millions.

In New York, where researchers compared those in homeless shelters with those in jail, at least 900 people had been in jail four or more times and in shelters that many times over a five-year period ending in 2006. Early results from a city initiative to place these high-cost nomads in permanent supportive housing halved their jail stays. In Seattle, 125 mentally ill people who bounced in and out of jail and averaged 21 emergency-room visits a year cost taxpayers more than $3.2 million in hospital bills alone.

Corrections systems may balk at spending money for community-based pre-release programs. But it's just too expensive to define public safety narrowly. Given economic pressures to cut the jail population and political pressures to improve public safety, the choice is between which approach to programs aimed at frequent users is best, not whether to launch or expand them.

So, where the hell is CEHKC in this issue? The same place they are on the homeless sweeps: stone silent with their heads in the sand. It's not hard to see why. Both King County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Nickels sit on their Governing Board. These two are at odds on the jail issue, and, once again, CEHKC has a fatal institutional conflict on a problem that radically affects homeless people.

Where we need leadership, what we get from CEHKC is hamstrung, unimaginative, brain-dead bureaucracy that sells out the poor and homeless in the name of preserving relationships among the high and mighty. Poor people deserve better, and the people of Seattle deserve better.


David B. said...

I don't know if it applies in this case, but around the country it is often the "correctional workers" unions that push for construction of new jails and prisons.

In New York (I remember reading in The Nation) prison employment constitutes the bulk of the economy in many upstate counties. Try to close a prison there, and the guard's union will toast your ass in the next election.

Tim Harris said...

Yes, the correctional workers union is a major driver in this as well. In California, this is the largest lobby in the state. More powerful than the teachers. There's an institutional logic of unlimited expansion here that treats the bodies of the the poor and non-white as a profit center. This needs to be called out and challenged.

Mark p.s. said...

I guess the government has to go bankrupt for the correctional workers union to go bust.
Year 1945 baby boom +65 age of retirement=2010 the start of the end.
baby boom graph
It might be coming.

How do the politicians explain $500 to $1000.00 a day bill for average prison inmate VS a monthly welfare cheque the same amount?
The system is really messed up.

Manny Frishberg said...

Back when I was working as a reporter in Calif. I did some stories on that state's criminal justice and prison systems.
Much to my surprise, the head of the Prison Guards Union was one of the more progressive voices I heard. prison guards feel themselves put in jeopardy by the overcrowding and lack of rehabilitation services in the prisons and opposed the Draconian Three-Strikes approach to repeat criminals.
They don't (or at least way back then) seem to view building more prisons as a full-employment issue and they are not uniformly brutish and ignorant of the problems of the system.
Washington had a pilot program several years back that was designed to reduce recidivism and improve the likelihood of reintigrating formewr inmates into society called the Work Experience Program. It was widely supported by prison officials close to the ground and had some chance of actually working, but it lacked the publicity, funding and public/political support to survive and grow.
That's not to say that the inherent brutalization of the current system doesn't seep into the attitudes and actions of guards. But it's just plain dumb to assume that people who are in close contact with all that is undeniably wrong with the way things are being done are supporting the trends out of a misplaced sense of financial security. We may be counting out dome of our most natural, and best-informed allies by doing so.
Maybe that's worth some investigative reporting in RC and elsewhere. talking to guards and inmates, going out to visit facilities, etc. is more time consuming and difficult than collecting data and making bar-charts (not in itself an unimportant part of the story, either) but it does yield a more nanced and occasionally enlightening view of the problems.

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