"It's the economy, stupid," said Bill Clinton in 1992. Today, in Seattle, King County, and Washington state, it is even more so the economy, but also social programs versus the jails and prisons that cost this country more than $60 billion per annum. Now Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels wants to build a new $196 to $222 million Seattle jail which will cost $17 to $18 million per year to operate -- despite a dramatic drop in crime.
I keep asking myself, "What's the real reality here?" With Seattle's crime rate the lowest in 40 years -- having dropped from about 150 crimes per 1,000 residents circa 1987 to 64.3 in 2007 -- and overwhelmingly clear evidence that imprisoning people does not work, who is going to gain from Nickels' new jail? Who's going to take home the tens of millions from acquisitions and construction? The building contractors? The concrete sellers? There must be something we don't know about -- some backroom dealings comparable to old Chicago politics or New York's Tammany Hall.
How could it be otherwise? Neither the state nor the county can afford to build prisons and also fund direly needed social programs.
The Department of Corrections is holding 18,551 inmates in prisons and work-release facilities in Washington and out-of-state beds in Arizona, Oklahoma, and Minnesota. A decades long report card is in, and when it comes to the effectiveness of jails and prisons, it's bad:
* In 2004, 61.5 percent of Washington courts' 28,076 adult felony sentences involved offenders who had a history of one or more prior offenses.
* 67.5 percent of prisoners released have been rearrested within three years of release, an increase over the 62.5 percent found for the preceding reporting period.
* 29 percent of prisoners released in 2000 returned to a state facility within three years as a result of a new felony conviction; within five years, the percentage returning jumps to 37 percent.
* 82 percent of the state's prisoners are parents, with, on average, 1.91 children.
On the other hand, social programs work -- and cost less! In fact, the Washington State Institute for Public Policy found that "if Washington successfully implements a moderate-to-aggressive portfolio of evidence-based options, a significant level of future prison construction can be avoided, taxpayers can save about $2 billion, and crime rates can be reduced." Connecticut state representative Mike Lawlor made the most salient point of all when he said, "Both Democrats and Republicans... realize that you're going to have to spend this money one way or another. It's just a matter of whether you want to spend less now on re-entry [social programs], or more later on new prisons [and jails]."
In the face of the King County budget shortfalls of $93 million, a billion-dollar plus deficit in state revenues, and comparable budgetary demands and cutbacks in Seattle, what sense does Nickels' new jail make? None, absolutely none. Why continue with the sheer idiocy of locking people up, providing no treatment, releasing them only to do again what they have done in the past, then locking them up again, when we can deliver the social programs that lead to better lives and safer communities -- and not waste tens of millions on imprisonment?
Why not implement a large-scale pre-booking drug diversion program that would allow police officers to give low-level drug suspects the option of being arrested or going to a facility where they could receive treatment and other necessary services such as housing assistance, job training, or mental health care -- thus never needing to be booked into a jail. Think about it: The King County jail would offer more bed space to the cities; Nickels would not need to build his new jail with our dollars; fewer lives would go down the tubes, and we would have a safer community!
In the real world, as opposed to Nickels' out-of-touch ivory tower at 600 Fourth Ave., there are 96,600 Washington children whose parents are in prison and more than 3,867 people under the watch of the DOC who are known to be homeless -- 1,780 of whom live in King County.
These people are brothers, sisters, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, mothers, fathers, husbands, wives, grandfathers and, yes, grandmothers, many of whom are in need of education, living-wage employment, health care, housing, and medication with which to manage mental illness. Let's spend our all too scarce dollars wisely on social programs and not waste them on what has been for all too long a never-ending cycle of imprisonment, release, imprisonment, release, imprisonment...
Ari Kohn is a co-founder and program coordinator of the Post-Prison Education Program, a non-profit whose mission is to help former prisoners break free from cycles of hopelessness, poverty, and imprisonment: http://www.postprisonedu.org