King County jails consider releasing non-violent suspects due to staffing shortages, 'inhumane conditions'

Issues involving hygiene, meals, overworked guards and COVID at regional jails surfaced during a King County Council committee meeting Tuesday.

Council members were there to hear a proposal from the Department of Public Defenders to reduce the jail population, by releasing people charged with non-violent felony offenses.

What they heard, instead, was a myriad of issues from the union representing public defenders and correction officers, and the head of the county’s correction system.

"I’ll tell you, we've been struggling," says John Diaz, the Director of Adult and Juvenile Detention.

The omicron variant has been wreaking havoc in many ways, in the main jail in downtown Seattle and at the Regional Justice Center in Kent.

Since March 2020, the county has been averaging a total daily jail population of 1,350 inmates because of COVID. In 2019, the average daily population was 1,900.

Recently, COVID has taken its toll on staff members at the jail. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Diaz says 151 staff members contracted COVID until December 2021. Since then, 198 staff members have contracted COVID, resulting in a greatly reduced staff to handle the inmate population.

Public defenders have been complaining for months about the lack of access to their clients, and their clients have been telling public defenders about ‘inhumane’ conditions because of the staffing shortage.

"Clients have not been able to get clean clothes for four to five days, and some have reported being unable to access shower facilities for seven to eight days at a time," said Rachael Schultz, Associated Counsel of the Accused for the Department of Public Defenders. "These conditions are inhumane anywhere."

She says the situation at the jail "has grown to a level that untenable" and clients "are unable to get basic needs met including sanitary and safety measure."

"It’s a smell so strong it will make your eyes water," said Elbert Aull, Attorney for the Department of Public Defense and Political Action Chair.  Public Defenders are represented by Service Employees International Union Local 925.

The state constitution requires inmates a safe, secure and humane detection.

"We can’t do that safely with the current jail staff," said Dennis Folk, President of the King County Corrections Officers Guild.  He said the county has 100 open corrections officer positions, and the union expects 100 more to leave by year's end because of stress, and that includes mandatory overtime.

"Currently, we have officers sleeping in empty jail cells because members are beyond exhausted and continue to operate in these inhumane conditions," said Folk.

Diaz says the county has 85 open positions.

To relieve some of the pressures and problems inside the jails, the public defenders made a proposal to council members.

"We are asking you to take immediate action to reduce the number of people being held in custody pending trial," Aull told council members.

The proposal calls for the immediate release of people without bail who are waiting for court appearances for non-violent felony crimes like car theft, residential burglary, drug deliveries, failure to register as a sex offender and fugitive warrants.

The county prosecutor disagrees on a blanket immediate release policy.

"If you have somebody who steals a catalytic converter every day, or somebody who breaks into a home every day, and police finally catch them, if there are these restrictions in place, they can't book them anymore," said Dan Clark, Chief Criminal Deputy for the Prosecutor’s Office.

"The better system is the one we have now, which actually takes the opportunity for those high-impact defenders to be in front of a judge, and the judge makes the call," said Clark.

According to the Prosecutor’s Office, 60% of people in the King County Jail System are there for violent crimes, 23% are there less violent crimes such as sex and firearms violations, 8% are habitual offenders held because they have five or more convictions, 3% are failures to appear in court and less than a tenth of 1% are in for misdemeanor crimes.

On Jan. 1, there were only 12 people in the jail system for a misdemeanor out of a total county population of 2.2 million, according to the prosecutor.

"Simply put, unless you believe this person is a danger to the community, then your discretion for the time being, and agree to release them," says Aull.

But the King County Council has little to do with setting jail policy, other than by ways of controlling its budget. Policy decisions are made by King County Executive Dow Constantine, and he has made it clear he would like the downtown jail to be closed for good because it’s expensive to run, and he wants the county to invest in alternatives to incarceration.

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