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Former Sheriff Urquhart wonders where prisoners will go with no county jail

King County Jail. (MyNorthwest.com file photo)

King County Executive Dow Constantine announced this week that he is proposing a phased closure of the county jail, and he plans to convert the remaining youth detention units at the Children and Family Justice Center (CFCJ) to other uses by 2025.

King County Executive to phase out youth detention, county jail

Former King County Sheriff John Urquhart told KIRO Radio’s Dori Monson that the jail building does need to go, but there are still questions that need to be answered.

“[Closing the King County Jail] means we get rid of an ugly building that was not designed right in the first place and certainly not designed for today’s type of jail, so that’s a good thing,” Urquhart said. “My question is, when I left, there were 1,800 prisoners there. What are they going to do with those 1,800 prisoners? That’s the question.”

Urquhart recognized that not everybody needs to be in jail, but there are some people who do.

“There’s all kinds of bad people,” he said. “There’s people that need to be in jail, but I’ll also be the first to say not everybody needs to be in jail. But … how do you separate those out? We’re required by state law to arrest domestic violence offenders. We have to do that. They have to go to jail.”

While Constantine hasn’t released a detailed plan for the phased closure, Urquhart’s guess is that any remaining prisoners would be moved to Kent. However, the mayor of Kent has put her foot down and said do not bring them to the Regional Justice Center.

“So where are they going to go?” Urquhart asked. “Like I say, some people have to be arrested. They have to go to jail. Where are they going to go?”

Urquhart says there has to be a solution.

“There’s no other plan that Dow talked about to what to do with these people that are there now and the people that are going to be arrested going forward,” Urquhart said. “You have to remember the number one purpose of the criminal justice system is to keep people safe, and everything we do should be predicated on that: keeping people safe.”

“We want to be progressive, we want to come up with new ways to handle people, and that’s all well and good. We should be. We can’t keep doing the same things we’ve done year, after year, after year. We also can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater until we can come up with a plan, what are we going to do in the meantime?” he added.

Urquhart also wonders what will happen the youth who are detained at the CFCJ. When he was working patrol, there were almost 200 kids in the youth center, it was down to about 50 when he was sheriff, and now it’s about 21.

“But those 21 are still the worst of the worst, and I don’t care how old they are. The public still needs to be protected [from] those kids,” Urquhart said. “It’s great to reduce the population there. I think that was probably a good thing because we came up with other alternatives, but you still have to have a place for those people to go. And again, I haven’t heard a plan about what they’re going to do with them.”

“It’s patently ridiculous that no kid, no person under the age of 18 — so that’s 17.5, 17 and 3/4, down to 12, 13, 14 — should not go to jail,” he added.

Urquhart said he was on a committee of 30 in 2016 that met every month, and the goal presented at the first meeting was no youth incarceration, period.

“I went to every single meeting for two years, and I can tell you, by the end of those meetings, that view went away because they finally realized we cannot do that,” he said. “There’s lots of other things we can do, lots of other things we should be doing and should have done for years and years and years, but getting rid of youth incarceration totally is not the answer.”

Appointing versus electing a sheriff

There’s currently a big effort to change the King County Sheriff from an elected position, as it is now, to being appointed by the King County Council. While Urquhart was on the line, Dori asked him for his opinion on this demand.

King County voters to decide on appointing sheriff, stripping powers from office

“If you liked the CHOP on Capitol Hill, you will love an appointed sheriff because that’s what’s going to happen,” Urquhart said. “There are 39 counties in the state of Washington, all 39 have an elected sheriff. And there’s a reason for that. Because the sheriff, under state law, is the chief law enforcement officer in the county, and he or she reports to the people.”

The sheriff, Urquhart said, should not report to the council or the county executive, but to the people.

“One of their big arguments is, well, we can do a nationwide search and get the best person. In other words, they can substitute their judgment for the judgment of the people,” Urquhart said. “… Look at the Seattle Police Department. It is a good department, don’t get me wrong, but they’ve had an appointed police chief. And what did that appointed police get them? A consent decree.”

Most sheriff’s offices, Urquhart said, including the Sheriff’s Office of King County, do not have consent decrees because the sheriffs make sure that does not happen.

“Ferguson, Minneapolis, New York, Atlanta, Portland, you name it, they all have an appointed police chief, and they’ve all had very, very serious problems,” Urquhart said.

Listen to the Dori Monson Show weekday afternoons from noon – 3 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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