Last week the candidates for King County Executive came to a meeting of all the Chiefs in our county, and answered questions about criminal justice and how the county plays in the sandbox with others. The comments from the candidates was illustrative of two things: first, they seem to all agree that there have been public safety problems and we need to do a better job of serving the taxpayer; and second, jails are expensive and we need to balance incarceration with other alternatives.
Other cities in South King County are soon planning to break ground on a regional misdemeanor jail, and here in Kent we plan to update our existing jail and add new options for alternatives to incarceration. Misdemeanor inmates are typically those convicted of theft, domestic abuse, drunk driving, or driving without a license. By creating the right balance with serious and consequential options for those incarcerated, we can make our facility work both in terms of public safety and in terms of showing real respect to the taxpayer.
This brings me to my topic this week – work crews. Over the next few months, we will be adding a completely new, and yet very old, concept to our municipal jail as a consequence for those who break the law.
Many jails, especially city jails, have only cells that hold people for a specified period of time. Some jails add what is called “work release” which means inmates can be let out to go to work if they have a job, and then return each night to the jail to serve their time. Others have unsupervised programs where inmate workers can work by themselves outside the facility. In Kent, our municipal jail has these elements already in place. During a typical week, our inmates do yard work at the jail grounds, wash police cars, work at the food bank, clean up the senior center, help manicure Tahoma Cemetery, and help set up the Kent Farmer’s Market on Saturdays. In the next few months, we will be adding a new and significant option to sentences as well.
In order to help us manage our jail population and ensure we have room for the highest priority offenders, we will be utilizing supervised work crews. It is a little like the movie “Cool Hand Luke” without the mirrored sunglasses. A corrections officer will manage a group of inmates who will be completing tasks like weeding, cutting back blackberry bushes, covering over graffiti, and picking up trash along bike paths and boulevards.
There are a number of real benefits to a work crew. A full day of work equals three days of incarceration for inmates with misdemeanor offenses. Inmates can do something beneficial and serve their sentences in a shorter time, and get done in the community what may not be getting done currently. Hard work is a more significant punishment for some people than is sitting in jail. Finally and perhaps most importantly, there is a dignity in hard work that is the opposite of sitting in jail watching TV. The fact is, offenders will all be getting out at some point and anything we can do to increase work ethic and a feeling of self-worth is beneficial, even if it is for a short time.
Our Mayor and City Council have been working hard with us on this issue to help us make our jail sustainable and effective over the long term, while still keeping costs to a minimum. A variety of options for sentencing, and a balanced approach to dealing with offenders, is the best way to keep those costs down and achieve our mission of tough consequences for those who break the law.