Sedro-Woolley Police Lt. Lin Tucker was called to a residential neighborhood to check out a suspicious vehicle believed to be involved in drug activity.

A man and woman were sitting in a parked car on the roadway, and their excuse that they were “visiting friends” didn’t add up.

When Tucker checked them out, both had jail sentences to serve stemming from Burlington theft cases — the man had 90 days, the woman 24.

They had no income and admitted to a $100-a-day heroin habit.

Tucker wanted to put them in jail right away. Just as he detained them and had their vehicle towed, the Skagit County Jail closed. It was too crowded, and staff was busy dealing with a number of inmates suffering with mental health issues.

So Tucker was left to hold the pair in the Sedro-Woolley Police holding facility until the jail re-opened. But he can only legally hold people for up to six hours.

“I was kind of in a bind,” he said.

Book and release

Such situations have become routine for patrol officers: They’ve picked up an offender who doesn’t pose a physical danger or just has a rap sheet of property crimes. If the crime isn’t violent enough, jail staff say it’s not worth making space.

So the officer gives the offender a new court date and can only hope the person will show up — a process known as a “book and release.”

“You get to seven of those before you get serious,” former Skagit County Undersheriff Gary Shand said. “Every time we do that we say, ‘There’s no consequence to your actions.’”

Jail staff and judges have changed their criteria for incarceration over the years as the number of criminals has exceeded the number of beds in the jail — and space on the floor.

The jail roster is mainly comprised of people accused of committing felonies — crimes for which a convicted offender would serve a year or more in prison. Those include murder, drug trafficking, first- and second-degree assault, child molestation, rape, robbery and first-degree theft.

In addition, state law requires a specific amount of jail time for some offenses. Domestic violence offenders, for example, must spend a night in jail.

But misdemeanor offenders — those with DUIs, malicious mischief, disorderly conduct, harassment, resisting arrest and fourth-degree assault — typically don’t end up in jail.

“There just isn’t room for misdemeanors,” Sheriff’s Sgt. Chris Kading said. “If the jail is full, the jail is full. You literally can’t pour a couple more drops in there when it’s full.”

Sheriff’s sergeants Chris Baldwin and Chris Kading started out as corrections officers and said they didn’t always have to leave known criminals on the street.

“Someone that needed to go to jail, you took ’em to jail,” Baldwin said of jail conditions about 20 years ago. “It might have been a misdemeanor, but that was the best place to make sure they weren’t going to hurt anybody or escalate.”

On the street

It’s no secret among criminals that they can get away with more these days.

People with warrants are even brazen enough to approach patrol officers and ask for a book and release, for instance, if they want to go fishing or hunting on their court date. And they know what new crimes they can commit without doing jail time — they even talk about it in jail, said Chief Corrections Officer Charlie Wend said.

When officers stop an offender, “They know they have warrants and they’re like, ‘Dude, the jail’s not gonna take me,’” Kading said.

The number of people booked and released from the jail has ranged from the mid-200s to the mid-400s in the past 15 years.

These days, many don’t even have to go to the jail for booking. Officers countywide started handling the process on the street, called patrol book and release.

More than 800 people were booked and released on the street by county deputies in 2010. It happens at the city level too, but cities do not appear to track the numbers.

“It’s still a dance,” Tucker said. “We’re dancing around the problem.”

Every additional warrant carries a cost, said Anacortes Police Chief Bonnie Bowers.

“Every piece of paper that has to be touched by a court clerk, that’s time, and that’s tax dollars. It makes the system very, very inefficient,” she said.

Bowers said every week — sometimes every day — police stop people in her community for a crime but can’t send them to jail.

In August, a man was stopped for an outstanding warrant and found with a small pipe for smoking methamphetamine. He was released because the jail was full, charged with possession of drugs and handed a court date.

This July, a young man stole electronics and other valuables from 12 cars in one night, Bowers said.

“There were thousands of dollars of things he stole,” Bowers said. “We got it all back, but we could not get him into the jail. The jail was full, and it was a property crime. I don’t blame the jail. You have to take crimes against persons and violent crimes first.”

But the delay of justice frustrates law enforcement and crime victims, she said.

“As frustrating as it is for us, I think that the victims have a lesser sense of justice for that, as well,” Burlington Detective Sgt. Bob Wischhusen said. “While we’re not in the punishment business, some folks definitely deserve to go to jail.”

Warrants

Patrol officers also have changed how they spend their time, and that concerns Bowers.

“When you have a young officer who is a good, aggressive law enforcement officer, and he arrests the bad guy and he can’t take the bad guy to jail, it’s kind of disheartening to young officers,” she said.

And offenders are more defiant because they’re no longer deterred by warrants.

“In the past if someone has a warrant, they lay low, they stay home for the night, they’re not gonna be out at the bars at two in the morning,” Sheriff Will Reichardt said. “Having the warrant used to be one way of removing them from the mix of society for awhile because they chose to lay low. Now it’s not an issue for them.”

And they don’t stop committing crimes until they’re locked up, Tucker said.

One in, one out

The crowded jail has not affected offenders’ sentences because those are set by state law. It has, however, changed how judges approach release requests.

“We’re releasing property offenders far more regularly than we’ve ever done before,” Superior Court Judge Michael Rickert said, adding that he considers an inmate’s potential danger to the public and flight risk.

Judges also decide who to release early to make room for a violent offender who must be held. They usually rank property criminals with only a few days left to serve as the safest candidates for release.

“There’s no choice. Someone has to go,” Rickert said. “And it’s not going to be the violent offender.”

But the choice is tenuous: Judges hope they’re releasing those least likely to reoffend, Rickert said.

“That’s every judge’s nightmare, if you release the wrong person and he reoffends,” he said.

Sometimes people already convicted have to wait to serve their sentence. Some have to make an appointment to start serving their jail time two to three months after sentencing, Wend said. If that appointed day is busy, another date must be set.

It’s also hard to enforce probation conditions if no consequences are imposed. Instead of sending a violator to jail, perhaps that person will have to work off his punishment or undergo a jail alternative.

“Without that tool (jail), it’s very difficult for us to get them to do what they’re supposed to be doing,” said Mike Mahoney, director of Skagit County District Court Probation. “The word’s kind of out that if you don’t do what you’re supposed to do, nothing’s going to happen to them.”

Keeping streets safe

Despite the constraints on patrol officers, law enforcement officials say they can always find a way to take violent offenders off the street.

“There is not one time that we have absolutely needed to book somebody that we were denied,” Mount Vernon Police Lt. Greg Booth said. “Not a single time.”

Still, Skagit County District Court Judge David Svaren said he’s seen a “degrading respect for authority” from criminals in the county because the threat of jail time for minor crimes is virtually gone.

In July, he reviewed the case of a young man currently in the jail for felony crimes. Looking back through his criminal history, Svaren saw an escalating series of property crimes along with book and releases from various police agencies in the county. Svaren said this man belonged in jail many times along the way, and he wonders if an early deterrent would have prevented the more serious, criminal activity.

“The criminal justice system is based entirely on a respect for authority,” Svaren said. “If there’s no respect for authority, then the criminal justice system means nothing.”

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