Increase in jail booking, housing fees will cost cities more

EVERETT — An increase in the fees for booking and housing inmates at the Snohomish County Jail means bigger bills for local cities next year.

The city of Everett, for example, expects to pay an additional $900,000 in 2015 under its contract with the county jail. The city of Edmonds is looking at a $150,000 increase. Mill Creek expects a $71,258 rise — a 26 percent increase.

The Everett Police Department projects spending $4.2 million in jailing bills next year, officer Aaron Snell said. That’s roughly 13 percent of the department’s annual budget.

The sheriff’s office notified cities about the coming increases earlier this year. Sheriff Ty Trenary in January said “the cost of housing people is not being reflected in what we’re charging.”

The increase in fees also comes on the heels of comprehensive reforms at the jail meant to prevent additional inmate deaths and address overcrowding and safety issues.

Trenary has been asking local police to rethink how they use the jail, which for years has been a warehouse for the homeless and the mentally ill.

The reforms have included more stringent booking restrictions. At times, that means officers can’t book nonviolent misdemeanor offenders who aren’t required by law to spend time in jail — such as someone caught driving with a suspended license. Some misdemeanors, including domestic violence and repeat DUIs, have mandatory jail time.

So far, the sheriff’s office is expecting a 15 percent decline in bookings by the end of this year — down to about 22,000, sheriff’s spokeswoman Shari Ireton said.

The cities pay booking and housing costs for misdemeanor cases, while the county by law is responsible for the costs of jailing felony inmates.

Booking fees cover costs such as creating records and medical screenings, while housing fees are more like laundry, inmate uniforms and meals, Ireton said.

As the costs rise, more cities are considering alternative ways to hold people accountable, including citations without jail time, house arrest, work release and community service.

When deciding whether to book someone, officers must rely on their discretion, and they recognize the jail reforms still are in transition, Edmonds police Sgt. Mark Marsh said.

Officers have been asked to put more thought into who gets booked and why since the recent recession, Lynnwood police Cmdr. Jim Nelson said. Roughly 4 percent of the people booked by Lynnwood police need serious medical or mental health care, which is more expensive than booking someone into general population.

The issue highlights the need for additional mental health housing in the county, Nelson said.

“If it’s the officer’s determination that the person has to be booked, we find a place for them,” Nelson said. “But the officers for some time have been trying to use more discretion.”

The booking fees will go from $95.94 to $115, with a similar increase in the daily holding fee. Cities are charged more for housing inmates with medical or mental health issues.

Since the reforms began at the county jail, some cities, including Lynnwood and Marysville, have signed contracts with another jail in King County that’s better equipped to house high-risk inmates. Other cities can contract with the jails in Lynnwood and Marysville, and with county jails in Eastern Washington. Using jails in other counties is more common after inmates have been sentenced, when they no longer have to appear for court hearings.

The city of Lake Stevens has used the Marysville City Jail for misdemeanor bookings since the late 1990s, police Cmdr. Dennis Taylor said. Lake Stevens police also are exploring other choices, such as work release, because of the rising costs of keeping people locked up.

In Edmonds, police are seeing more nonviolent cases end with a citation rather than arrest, compared to before, Marsh said.

“This is not always what we want to do and with the increased jail costs we may have to do this more often next year,” he said.

However, there are still cases where jail time is the most appropriate consequence, Marsh said.

If someone can’t be booked, officers try to find community resources that can help them, such as the Compass Health crisis center, Snell said. Police and jail staff also are part of the Everett Streets Initiative task force focused on homelessness in the county’s biggest city.

Everett officers now are less often booking someone solely for having a misdemeanor, nonviolent arrest warrant, Snell said. Officers now work with the city’s municipal court to see if they can reschedule someone’s hearings without putting them behind bars. They also notify prosecutors.

If the county jail declines to book someone, Mountlake Terrace police officers can appeal if they believe that is warranted, Assistant Chief Pete Caw said. One example would be when somebody needs to locked up to keep a situation from escalating to violence.

That requires a conversation with jail supervisors.

“They’ve been fairly responsive,” Caw said. “They understand.”

Misdemeanors account for roughly three-quarters of arrests in Mountlake Terrace, Caw said. Terrace officers can book into the Lynnwood city jail, but when its beds are full, the county is the primary choice, he said.

Cities also can use electronic home monitoring to defer some of their jailing costs, but that hinges on the defendant’s financial situation, Caw said.

In addition, officers have the option to “book and release” someone after they are photographed and fingerprinted, a process known as an “administrative booking.”

That can take a few hours and serve as a “time-out,” Caw said. Cities still owe a booking fee afterward.

Still, the decision whether to book can be a fine line, Nelson said. Relatively minor, misdemeanor crimes can be nuisance issues, such as trespassing or someone drunk in public. If officers don’t get that person off the street, they will keep getting called back for problems, he said.

“We have to make sure we are balancing the rights of the public as well,” he said. “When people call and there are issues going on, and there are clear violations of the law, their expectation is that police officers will do something about it. Sometimes even on those minor cases, booking and releasing someone isn’t effective for public safety, for quality-of-life issues.”

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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