Push to restrict KC jail bookings likely ‘not going to come forward,’ says councilmember
The King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) is calling on the county prosecutor, jails, and county council to implement booking restrictions on non-violent offenders.
The DPD cites increased COVID protocols, along with a staffing shortage of both corrections officers and public defense attorneys, that has left jails in a state where attorney-client visitation has been extremely limited for much of the last month. Booked offenders miss court dates, resulting in unnecessary incarceration time.
That argument was made by the DPD before the King County Council on Tuesday. The department claims that overcrowding in the county’s two jails is approaching levels seen at the beginning of the pandemic. DPD adds that investigation bookings result in churn, which contributes to the spread of COVID. For context, similar filing restrictions, limited to non-violent misdemeanors, were imposed in 2020, and the jail population has decreased from 1,900 to a current 1,350.
“Fear that people may miss a court date is not a reason to put their lives in danger in overcrowded units,” a DPD representative said Tuesday. “At understaffed jails, that someone may miss a court date is not a reason to keep them locked in a cell for days at a time. No showers, no phone calls, no windows, cold food. But that’s where we are right now.”
If their request is met, King County would no longer book under investigation suspected offenders of grand theft of a stolen vehicle, residential burglary, and failure to register as a sex offender.
King County Corrections Guild made a similar request in the middle of January. It also supports the booking restrictions, claiming that the safety of staff is at stake when jails are saturated.
“Failing to act will continue to undermine the basic fundamental constitutional principles we’ve all sworn to uphold,” a KCCG representative continued. “We ask you to please take action and help ease the suffering felt by the accused and their defenders within the criminal legal system. What we’re doing now is clearly not enough. This situation warrants a very clear solution for the safety and well-being of our staff and clients. It’s your duty to address these concerns. To ignore these requests would be to willfully allow sickness and poor morale to spread even further.”
Despite the coalition’s efforts, the push to lift some booking restrictions has garnered significant pushback from King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, representatives from the King County Sheriff’s Office, and the county council. Largely, they recognize the problem, but argue that “an individualized approach” is more appropriate when dealing with suspected felony offenders. Satterberg referenced jail population data, which indicates that the majority of booked suspects have committed violent crimes, and those held are upon a judge’s orders after “thoughtful review.”
“Almost 60% are there for what the law defines as a violent offense,” Satterberg said Tuesday. “Another 23% are more serious offenses, which includes sex offenses, serious domestic violence, firearm offenses, violating court orders against no contact. Each individual case has been taken to a judge, and a judge has agreed with us that this person poses a threat.”
“The problem with the blanket prohibition on certain felony crimes is that it is not a nuanced approach,” Criminal Division Chief Dan Clark continued. “So if you have somebody who steals a catalytic converter every day, or somebody who breaks into a home every day and the police finally catch them, if these restrictions are in place, they can’t book them anymore. The better system is the one we have now that actually takes the opportunity for those high-impact offenders to be in front of a judge, and then, the judge makes a call.”
As for the council’s consideration of the arguments, Councilmember Reagan Dunn told KTTH’s Jason Rantz Show that the push will not likely come to be in its current form.
“It looks like maybe it’s not going to come forward in the way that downtown Seattle, King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay would like,” Dunn offered, referencing his colleague’s vocal criticism of KC corrections for doing “nowhere near enough” to assist a jail population that is sometimes “locked up in dark cells for 23 hours a day.”
“They sort of swing for the fences sometimes, … and they come to some compromise,” Dunn added.
KIRO Newsradio’s Hanna Scott contributed to this report.