Tuesday, August 5, 2008
Over the past two decades, the nation’s prison population has more than doubled. According to a recent Pew Center report on incarceration, one in ninety-nine Americans is behind bars. This is 30 percent more people per capita than in China, our closest rival for the title of gulag state. The closer one looks, the uglier it gets. One in thirty men between age 20 and 34 are imprisoned. For African-Americans, the number rises to one in nine.
While Washington State incarceration rates over 1960-1980 remained largely even, since 1980, they have more than doubled. Over the last two decades, county jail incarceration rate grew across Washington by 184%. Similar trends have occurred across the nation.
The good news is that King County has bucked that trend. While U.S. incarceration rates rose more than 25% since 1995, the numbers here have remained roughly the same. Numbers in Seattle Municipal Jail have dropped by 38 percent over the past decade, even as overall population rose by eight percent.
This Seattle/King County success story is a direct result of programs like mental health and drug diversion court and housing vouchers for released prisoners, which have reduced recidivism by 30 to 40 percent.
As a result, the county jail system has roughly 1,500 beds to spare. A continued focus on upstream alternatives to local incarceration — recently expanded with the passage of the Veterans and Human Services Levy — are likely to continue this enlightened trend.
So, why is the City of Seattle hell-bent on building a new jail?
Four neighborhoods have been selected as potential sites for a sprawling 7-acre facility that will cost an estimated $110 million to build and about $19 million annually to operate.
Community meetings have drawn large and angry crowds of potential neighbors. While a unified position has begun to emerge that favors a downtown high-rise facility on city-owned land, most would settle for Anywhere But Here.
Few, however, have argued that no jail should be built at all.
The City is Lying
The proposed city jail is a response to 1999 King County projections that county capacity to house misdemeanor criminals would end in 2012. These projections have not held. By 2008, we were supposed to have 3,800 inmates. The April average was just 2,380. Things have changed.
And yet, the City of Seattle says a new jail is inevitable. Plans have been in motion for nearly a decade. Institutional momentum exists. Big contracts are involved. Jobs are at stake. Budgets will expand. They say we have no choice.
The city’s talking points are transparently false. While the city concedes that numbers of people in jail are decreasing, city policy analyst Catherine Cornwall says the new facility is needed because “we’ll never get that number down to zero.”
Zero? Why zero? Because, says the official City of Seattle website, the “nonrenewable contract” with King County lapses in 2012, leaving Seattle without a single misdemeanant jail bed.
So, without a new jail, the city implies, we’ll have to release domestic violence perpetrators, drunk drivers, and homeless people charged under the City’s newly tightened public property trespass laws to the street. We’re looking at chaos here.
Again, they’re lying. And apparently they think we’re stupid. The County Council unanimously voted on June 30 to extend current contract terms to 2014 as a first step to renegotiating a regional solution to incarceration.
Homelessness, Race, and Politics
One would think, given that the Committee to End Homelessness in King County's own Color of Homelessness report documents the links 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. Both County Executive Ron Sims and Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels are on the CEHKC governing board. Despite the clear links to the issue of homelessness, CEHKC is politically hamstrung and — as is the case on the city’s policy of homeless sweeps — likely to remain silent.
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, especially for those who are Black, brown, red, and poor.
The 2008 homeless One Night Count documents that 58 percent of homeless people in King County are persons of color. Countywide, people of color make up less than 25 percent of the general population. Although Blacks make up just five percent of county residents, they make up 40 percent of King County’s homeless. This number is up four percent from just two years ago.
Bruce Western, a leading researcher on the links between incarceration and poverty, describes the downward cycle that prevails in economically devastated communities of color. High incarceration rates lead to reduced wage and employment opportunity. These reduced prospects can often lead to crime, which leads back to incarceration.
Drugs, which offer oblivion and economic opportunity in one convenient package, become very tempting. Drug felons — who have fed the prison boom that began in 1980 and are disproportionately people of color — are subject to a lifetime bar from public housing, education assistance, TANF, food stamps, and veteran’s benefits.
Is it any wonder that people become homeless?
There is a Choice
Seattle’s decision to build a new jail assumes that the numbers of those in jail and prison will continue to grow, just as they have for nearly three decades. Scarce resources will be diverted from the positive business of rebuilding lives to the dead-end logic of ever-expanding incarceration. King County has shown us that there is another way.
For some reason, progressives have largely failed to recognize that Seattle’s jail expansion is an economic justice issue. Homeless advocates have failed to recognize that the facts that exist in their reports also exist in the real world. Even Seattle’s small handful of anti-prison activists seems to be asleep on this one.
The City of Seattle wants a new jail. They say it’s inevitable. It’s not. The only question is whether poor people matter enough for us to care.