Jail Changes Could Cost County $5 Million or More a Year

May 9, 2012

Reforms to the state's community supervision program for recently released jail inmates, combined with other changes at the state level, could cost King County between $4.6 and $4.8 million a year in the short term, and as much as $10 million a year in the future, but could also reduce recidivism among former inmates, the King County Council was told this week.

The biggest change to the community supervision (formerly known as parole) program is that, under a new law adopted this past legislative session, former inmates who violate the terms of their parole will be automatically thrown in jail for a short period of time, usually a few days, in combination with intensive supervision and treatment. DOC contracts with the county to pay for state inmates' stays in county jail.

In contrast, under the current system, violators go before a hearing officer who then determines what sanctions they'll be subject to, which may or may not include jail time. (The jail time under the existing system is usually longer). The idea of the new approach is that when people know for sure that they'll face jail time---as opposed to possibly facing vague sanctions, which may or may not include jail---they're less likely to reoffend. (According to state legislative staff, "increasing the certainty of apprehension and punishment demonstrates a significant deterrent effect" over the currently vague and uncertain sanctions.)

"What will happen is that for certain kinds of violations, people will go to jail, but they will go for two to three days and be let out," King County juvenile detention director Claudia Balducci says. "The theory is that you're much more likely to go to jail if you violate the terms of your release. Right now, there's no hearing, no lengthy stay. The theory is that the certainty that I'm going to go to jail for a certain period of time has a better deterrent effect than the possibility that I might go to jail or I might not."

While the idea of reducing recidivism is obviously in the county's best interest, reducing the jail population is not, at least financially. Balducci says the new approach is expected to reduce the number of inmates at the county jail from about 270 to 220 per day---an impact county executive Dow Constantine's government affairs director Genessee Adkins estimated will cost the county between $6.9 million and $7.3 million the first year it's in effect, for a net impact of $4.6 to $4.8 million after the reduction in costs from fewer inmates is factored in.

Ultimately, Balducci says, the county could end up saving money if it's able to close down a whole facility, like the King County regional jail in Kent, which houses just 64 inmates. But, she adds, "because we can't do that routinely"---because the county only has two adult jails---"there's always going to be a net cost of losing that revenue, and that will be an impact to our bottom line."
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