Between the flight paths of Sea-Tac Airport’s first and third runways is the first jail of its kind in the state.
The SCORE facility in Des Moines, which could house up to 800 prisoners, just celebrated its first anniversary. Its unimposing, cheery entryway looks more like that of a community college than jail.
Called the South Correctional Entity, SCORE is an example of how seven cities in King County banded together to build a jail for misdemeanor offenders. A group of Skagit County and local city officials toured the building one sunny day in early October.
As they walked the facility’s white, wide halls, many stared in wonder.
“I think any town would be delighted to have one of those anywhere,” Sedro-Woolley Supervisor and City Attorney Eron Berg said at a recent meeting.
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton said he was impressed, and there were not a lot of “bells and whistles.”
The SCORE facility, with its open spaces and natural light, contrasts starkly with Skagit County’s outdated and dimly lit jail, built nearly 30 years ago to house 83 inmates.
Today, more than 200 inmates crowd the Skagit County Jail on a typical day, with two to three people per cell and inmates sleeping on the floor or in an open room with rows of bunk beds.
It’s so crowded that sometimes police can’t book offenders. Judges are forced to release some offenders to make room for others accused of more serious crimes. Authorities worry they may one day release someone who will commit a serious — possibly deadly — crime after being released.
To many, SCORE is a vision of what could be if taxpayers approve a measure to pay for a new or renovated Skagit County Jail. And county and city officials from Skagit County are looking for inspiration.
For several months, they’ve been examining the problems of the current jail and working toward a solution. The group, called the Jail Coordinating Council, could decide on a plan within the next several months.
But while all agree something must be done to alleviate jail crowding, questions remain, mostly about money: Who would pay for it, and how? Is a new jail really needed, or is it possible to send offenders to other jails with empty beds?
How to pay
SCORE was created with a cooperative agreement between seven King County cities. They paid for the $60 million facility with money the cities already were paying to other area jails to rent inmate beds.
While Skagit County houses felony inmates, SCORE only keeps inmates with misdemeanors; felonies are King County’s responsibility.
The cost of replacing or renovating the Skagit County Jail could be between $85 million and $90 million after construction, land purchase and financing for a 30-year bond.
There are many ways the county could raise the money, but only two would raise enough: a voted countywide property tax or a voted countywide sales tax. A voted property tax requires 60 percent approval; a countywide sales tax 50 percent.
Both methods would demand more from some jurisdictions than others. For instance, a voted property tax would charge cities with a high property value — like Anacortes — more, while a sales tax would put more of the cost burden on cities with a solid retail tax base, like Burlington.
Burlington Mayor Steve Sexton isn’t happy with that idea.
“Burlington’s economic stability is on the line,” he said.
Who will pay
Burlington’s residential population hovers around 8,400. But during any given day, the number of people in the small city swells to 60,000 as visitors come to shop.
Located on Interstate 5 and Highway 20, Burlington is the shopping capital of Skagit County, if not the region. Cash registers throughout the city ring up purchases all year, from shoes and electronics to cars and clothes.
Shoppers in Burlington spent about $67,100 per permanent resident last year, the most of any city per capita in the entire state. Burlington is by far the top earner of overall sales tax in the county, bringing in fully one-third of the county’s total sales taxes.
But Burlington’s share of the 2011 jail budget was only 5.6 percent.
If voters pass a countywide sales tax to pay for a new jail, Burlington would be on the hook for about a third of the cost.
In addition, an increase in sales tax could affect the number of shoppers who come to Burlington, Sexton said.
Currently, Burlington’s sales tax is 8.2 percent. Sexton said it’s low enough that shoppers bypass Bellingham, which charges 8.7 percent sales tax, to drive here. If the county passes a 0.3 percent sales tax to pay for the jail, shoppers might find Burlington less attractive, he said.
Instead of a sales tax, Sexton prefers a user fee system, similar to SCORE’s, that charges those who use the jail a fee to help shoulder the cost of the new facility.
But Skagit County Commissioner Sharon Dillon says that solution won’t work — there’s not enough money.
While about 60 percent of crimes occur in the cities, Skagit County pays more than 80 percent of the jail’s annual cost. That’s because state law requires counties to cover the jail stay costs of people charged with felonies.
That money adds up. Last year, the county’s portion of the bill was $4.6 million — nearly 10 percent of its discretionary spending.
With budgets scraping bone lately, the county cannot afford more than 80 percent of the new jail, Dillon said. The project can only happen with a countywide sales tax, she said.
“That’s the only way it pencils out,” she said recently. “There’s not enough money in anyone’s coffers to make this work.”
The crowded jail is a community problem, she said. Unlike a property tax, a sales tax would target every resident, as well as visitors who shop here.
“I, as a customer in Burlington, pay that tax,” Dillon said. “Some of that money could and should benefit all of Skagit County.”
Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell said a solution for the crowded jail would cost less to county residents if it were paid for with a sales tax. On the other hand, that revenue stream has been less than reliable in recent years, he said.
Mount Vernon Mayor Jill Boudreau said asking voters to approve two tax measures — one for sales tax and another for property tax — seems more fair than other options, although it may be tougher to pass.
“I don’t think the public is against the cost, understanding that there’s a need,” she said.
Rent or own?
Some, like Sexton and Burlington City Administrator Bryan Harrison, question whether the county needs an $85 million to $90 million solution requiring new taxes to help solve inmate crowding. Both say there’s more room in jails throughout the state.
Yakima built more space than it can pay for, and officials there are courting Burlington for its business, Harrison said. Beds there cost $58 per day, he said, and includes transportation to and from Skagit County twice a week.
“I’m sold that we can alleviate our capacity crisis that we are in without indebting our citizens for $80 (million) to $90 million,” Harrison said. “We should definitely give that a thorough, honest appraisal.”
Such an arrangement would be a “management nightmare,” said Chief of Corrections Charlie Wend. Sending inmates to Yakima — a three-hour, one-way trip — poses many difficulties. Some of the seven cities that built the SCORE facility used to send inmates to Yakima in hopes of saving money, he said.
“I could not manage moving that kind of population on a daily basis without additional staff. It couldn’t be done,” Wend said. Already, the county pays roughly $3.4 million per year in jail staffing costs. Last year, understaffing added about $408,000 in overtime to that figure.
If housing inmates in other counties becomes the norm, the county also would need a secure space to hold them while they wait for a hearing, Wend said.
“If I keep someone for 12 hours on a bus in chains, someone at the federal level is going to start talking to me,” about prisoner care violations, Wend said.
Out-of-area jails also don’t want “problem inmates” — those with high medical costs or discipline issues, he said.
Superior Court Judge Michael Rickert said shipping inmates to other areas before sentencing “doesn’t work for anybody.”
“It would work great if you had a big group of post-sentenced people who are looking for four to nine months in custody … Just warehouse them,” Rickert said. “But I think you’re looking at a pretty small subset of people in Skagit County.”
Boudreau thinks renovating the current jail could be the answer, along with stepping up programs aimed at helping people and keeping them out of jail.
“Why would we not look at other ways with programming so that we never get full?” Boudreau said.
Stopping the cycle
Judges, jail staff and police officers often see the same people coming through the criminal justice system.
“Most criminals, in my experience, have just made a poor decision,” Rickert said. “But down deep, there’s always some good in everybody.”
Still, Rickert said that about 5 percent of the people he sees need to be locked up “for a long time.” The other 95 percent can be reformed if their drug or mental health problems are addressed, he said.
Skagit County provides some rehabilitation options. Drug and mental health courts act as jail alternatives for people who qualify.
The jail also has a Residential Substance Abuse Treatment program, but the facility’s tight space limits the opportunity to men. There is no room to include women in the program, corrections officer Julie Zorn said.
Wend has long nursed the idea of a “one-stop shopping” concept for criminal justice services, incorporating programs such as daytime offender check-ins, substance abuse and mental health treatment, parenting classes and GED assistance in a new county jail building.
Keith Tyne, director of the Skagit County Public Defenders, supports that vision.
A key component to cutting crime is to treat the root of offenders’ dysfunctional behavior, Tyne said.
“There’s a hunger among many inmates for treatment,” he said. “And they can’t receive treatment in a meaningful way (in this jail).”
A plan for the future must include treatment programs, Anacortes Mayor Dean Maxwell said.
“If it’s drug and alcohol treatment programs that put some of these people on the right track, that’s certainly cheaper than seeing (the same person) go through the system four or five times,” he said.
Yet, adding more treatment also adds to the pricetag.
But there’s a cost to inaction, as well, as Maxwell pointed out at a recent jail council meeting.
“I think when you add up all of the costs that law enforcement has to endure, chasing the same people five times in the same week, and you add up the home burglaries and the property loss, that’s pretty substantial,” Maxwell said.
“We have a reputation of living in some of the safest communities in the United States. What’s that worth?” Maxwell asked. “It’s worth a lot to me.”