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Spokane County Facing Overcrowding Crisis in Crumbling Jail

Spokane County (WA) is facing an overcrowding crisis at its 28-year-old jail, which is in desperate need of renovation as it processes nearly double the annual bookings it was designed to handle.

While Spokane County's overcrowding problem is hardly unique in today's justice system, Spokane County has had to refuse prisoners for lack of space, at a time when the county's property crimes are increasing.  Contrary to national trends, from 2008 to 2012, property crimes jumped 55 percent.  In the City of Spokane, the rate is three times the national average.  Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says that too many repeat felons are being arrested and released because there isn't enough jail space.  "You've raised an entire generation of criminals who know there are no consequences to crime because you are going to get back out," he said.

Knezovich estimates that 80 percent of the 900-plus prisoners routinely at the jail are felons.

The overcrowding has taxed the jail to the point where rolling lockdowns are used to keep the growing number of gang members from attacking each other.  The jail reported 152 incidents of violence last year, a 58 percent increase over 2011.  "A jail is a small city," said Lt. Mike Sparber.  "You can't manage it when it's overstrained."

Making matters worse is the crumbling conditions of the relatively new jail, which includes failing elevators, and a dilapidated kitchen that needs a $9.6 million renovation.  The county says it doesn't have the money, only exacerbating other problems.  Because the jail commissioners are wary of asking voters to fund an expensive new jail, prospects for reform are dim.  Within the last five years, the jail has at times increased its capacity, only to have those efforts scaled back.  "We can't stack them like cord wood," said Jail Director John McGrath.


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