Downtown Seattle jail to close, plans for inmates unclear

King County plans to shut down the county jail and juvenile detention center in Seattle, but the future of the current inmates is unclear. 

The mission, spearheaded by County Executive Dow Constantine, aims to switch jails to programs for “prevention, diversion, rehabilitation, and harm reduction," according to a memo outlining the closure plans that was sent Tuesday.

There are a lot of unknowns about the announcement, perhaps the biggest question: what would happen to accused murderers and rapists who are held in jail before their trial? Would the most violent of criminals arrested in the area be subject to program instead of incarceration? 

Jail is where people serve their sentences for low level crimes, misdemeanors, and where people charged with felonies are incarcerated while awaiting to stand trial. Depending on the verdict they’re either released or sent to prison. 

According to the latest announcement, in Seattle, this decades old criminal justice model may be a thing of the past.

“I’m shocked, I can’t understand what the plan would be for this,” says Dennis Behrend Jr., a bail bond specialist with Lacey O’Malley Bail Bond Agency.

Behrend’s questions mirror those of many in the city. If the downtown jail closes, where will all the inmates go?

“I sit in the courtroom almost every day listening to cases and we don’t bond out everyone. There are some seriously dangerous people in custody. “

The memo sent to jail staff details Constantine’s plans for a phased closing of the Seattle jail, which the memo says is “expensive to operate, and doesn’t serve our security, healthcare, or efficiency needs.”

The phased closing for the jail, which houses more than 1,300 inmates currently, would happen once the COVID-19 pandemic is “under control.”

Reducing incarceration and finding more effective solutions to the repeat offender situation issue in Seattle have been hot topics for years. The County Executive has made it clear he want to reduce inmate population, especially in the youth offender detention center.

Behrend said he understands offering alternatives to the mentally ill and those struggling with addiction, but isn’t sure where other inmates fit into that equation.

“There were three people booked Friday on homicide charges. Are we gonna let those people out?...I have no idea what they plan to do for those people and justice needs to be held for people who’ve done wrong," said Behrend. 

The County Executive’s office declined to an interview with Q13 News, but said the vision for eventually closing the jail will be outlined in their 2021-2022 budget.

Much of the plan to shut down the county jail is vague, but the memo said they’re aiming to eliminate all youth offender incarcerations by no later than 2025.

Black Lives Matter Seattle released a statement reading in part, “we want a system that supports youth and helps them lead healthy, productive, and fulfilling lives. Their lives matter. Ending youth incarceration is the right thing to do for our children, their families, and all of us.”