The folly of building a new Seattle jail

Other regions are closing prisons, legalizing drugs, and developing alternatives. Why is Mayor Nickels wedded to the status quo?
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Mayor Greg Nickels

Other regions are closing prisons, legalizing drugs, and developing alternatives. Why is Mayor Nickels wedded to the status quo?

Lawmakers in Olympia are looking at anything and everything when it comes to reducing costs this year — even closing two state prisons. In fact, states across the country are closing prisons and releasing non-violent offenders in response to gaping holes in revenue. But not here in Seattle. No, we'ꀙre still planning to spend $226 million on a new municipal jail over the next few years, budget crisis or not.

When those at the bottom of our economic food chain lose one safety net after another, programs for the mentally ill are reduced to fragments and more fall on hard times trying to stay housed, healthy and sane. They won'ꀙt have to worry about where to go when they fall apart. No worries, because we'ꀙll have a brand new jail with 680 beds ready and waiting.

This new jail will also be ready and waiting for the high school drop outs who are eight times as likely to run crossways with the law. As we cut the state'ꀙs education budget by almost $1 billion, close schools in Seattle, further narrow the curriculum, and raise high school graduation requirements, we'ꀙll be prepared for the fallout. Why? Because we'ꀙll have a new jail right here in Seattle.

What does it really matter that Sen. Jim Webb, Democrat from Virginia, just introduced major new legislation challenging many of the assumptions that now underlie our corrections systems, including how we deal with drug offenses in this country? Or that even some conservative political pundits are talking about the possibility of legalizing some drugs? Or that here in Washington State, almost 70 percent think we should decriminalize or legalize marijuana possession? And how to factor in that viable pre-arrest diversion programs already exist to treat non-violent drug offenses differently, saving tens of thousands of dollars per arrest?

But what does that really matter when our City'ꀙs investment in building a jail is dug in deep? Why imagine anything else? Even though we have been here before, and faced similar choices about whether or not to invest in less costly, and more forward-looking treatment options, we'ꀙre still committed to a new jail.

In many other ways, we have learned to do things better. Twenty-five years ago we made the choice to invest in recycling over building a new waste incinerator: today we have a world class recycling system. Ten years ago, we made the choice to invest in treatment and prevention programs for juvenile offenders over building a new juvenile detention facility. It required King County to re-evaluate every aspect of its system. Thanks to bold leadership, we did, averting millions in construction costs and increasing public safety.

Or consider our having just elected an African American president. The black turnout in the 2008 elections was 100 percent higher than ever before. Meanwhile, here we are in King County, renamed for the greatest civil rights leader in history, and still 40 percent of the jail population is African American while only 6 percent of our population falls into this racial category. Does this galling disparity really matter when we have a Mayor Greg Nickels who can dismiss a broader range of voices without repercussion? Clearly not.

Yet it does matter, a lot. It matters to a growing constituency of citizens and young people who find it appalling that only a few are stepping forward to question the paradox of building a jail and closing schools. It will only change if more of us confront these challenges and demand an authentic response by our leaders.


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