King County jail population drops significantly over 13 years

In late August the King County Prosecutor’s Office proclaimed “For the first time in decades, King County is experiencing a surplus in jail beds,” with an estimated daily population of 1700 inmates in 2013, down from an average of 2900 in 2000.

The prosecutor’s office cited two sources contributing to the drop at the King County Correctional Facility: the 2011 opening of SCORE in South King County (a misdemeanor jail serving Auburn, Burien, Des Moines, Federal Way, Renton, SeaTac, Tukwila and other contract communities), and “a decline in the number of people held in custody while awaiting trial …”

That second reason piqued our curiosity at the Herald, as one of the greatest public safety frustrations voiced by West Seattleites is the proliferation of property crime (burglaries, car prowls and auto thefts primarily), often times committed by thieves who are arrested one week only to be back out on the street and re-offending the next.

KCPO Deputy Chief of Staff Ian Goodhew was a good sport in answering our questions on that topic and more in an email.

Goodhew said some of the jail population drop can be attributed “to the fact that we no longer hold many low level drug offenders.”

“The primary reason for that and for our looking at alternatives to incarceration is that those offenders used to look at significant prison time on their first, second and third low level drug offenses,” he said. “Beginning in 2002 the State Legislature has drastically cut down the prison time a person faces for low level drug offenses. So we used to seek long sentences and keep them in jail, with little or no effect on the amount of drugs being dealt and used on the street. But then the prison option went away, so we started looking at alternatives like out LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program, to those problems.”

As for property criminals, Goodhew said the reason they sometimes see less jail time is a different story from drug users.

“This is not true for property crime offenders, most notably repeat car thieves and burglars,” he said. “In fact since 2000 we seek higher bail and pretrial in custody detention on chronic car thieves and burglars. We have formed our Car Theft Initiative Unit and our Repeat Burglar Unit to try to deal with these individuals aggressively.”

Goodhew said the reason property criminals sometimes get out so soon is due to three scenarios (his words):

1. We are not able to get enough bail imposed on the person when we file new charges to keep them in custody or we think we don’t have a basis to ask for higher bail because the crimes are property crimes ( bail is allowed for people who are a risk to violently re offender or who don’t show up to court).
2. The police are not able to get the case together and “rush file” charges with us quickly enough to keep the person from being released
3. We ask for high bail and we think we have a basis to get it but the Court disagrees and releases the person to one of our alternatives to incarceration (like the Community Center for Alternative Programs).

In any case, we end up with an offender back on the streets and, sometimes, right back to their crimes.

“So part of the drop could be that Courts are using alternatives to jail more than they used to for property crime offenders, but Prosecutors are not asking for lower bail and not holding the person any less so than we were 13 years ago,” Goodhew said.

Goodhew also noted the jail population drop is due in part to “an across the board drop in crime in all categories, including violent offenses …” over those 13 years.

King County Jail, by the numbers
- Average length of stay is a little under three weeks. “That average reflects the high volume of short stay bookings, because the average length of stay for people awaiting felony trials in much longer.”

- Felony jail stint averages: Assault (70 days), Robbery (86 days), Sex Offenses (175 days), Homicide (340 days)

- KCPO reports a similar drop in Juvenile Detention. In 2013, King County averages 56 daily incarcerated juveniles awaiting trial, versus 148 in 2000.

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