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OPINION: King County Must Reduce Jail Population Immediately

by Anita Khandelwal

The only humanitarian response to the COVID-19 crisis in the county jail is to reduce the number of people incarcerated there.

On Jan. 6, a person who had already been jailed for more than two weeks on suspicion of possessing a stolen vehicle waited in a King County Correctional Facility (KCCF) cell for an arraignment hearing in Superior Court. Shortly before the scheduled hearing, the court cancelled his hearing. Why? Because he had been jailed in a unit that also had a person who tested positive for COVID-19 and was being held in quarantine. 

Had his hearing occurred, he would have been told what crime he was alleged to have committed and been able to seek his release. Instead, he languished in jail for another four days before he had his hearing, where the court agreed to release him to house arrest. But jail policy and COVID-19 again blocked his exit: The jail would not arrange for house arrest because he might have been exposed to COVID-19, so he waited another nine days before being released.  

The Department of Public Defense (DPD) represents countless people like this man — people in jail who are sick with COVID-19, who are quarantined because they have been exposed to COVID-19, or who languish because the jail staff who would normally bring them to court or meetings with their attorneys are sick with COVID-19. As of Thursday, 170 incarcerated people — more than 10% of those incarcerated at the jail — were sick with the virus and more than 200 additional people were in quarantine. These individuals are disproportionately BIPOC, indigent, or suffering from unmet behavioral health needs.  

Even if omicron is overall milder than other variants, the impact of this COVID-19 outbreak — the largest in our jails since the pandemic began nearly two years ago — has severely harmed our clients. Many are locked in their cells for 23 hours a day; frequently they’re unable to access court hearings and their lawyers. While they remain locked down and cut off, they lose their jobs and housing and cannot care for their children, compounding the suffering inevitably wrought by this racist system.   

The King County prosecutor and KCCF administrators could mitigate the consequences of this crisis by taking two simple actions that would reduce the number of people jailed in this dangerous, cruel environment.  

First, the jail needs to stop jailing people on allegations of property offenses by police officers where no prosecutor has filed charges and no judge has issued an arrest warrant. These bookings, which generally last one to five days, result in churn through the jail, which NPR has described as an “epidemic machine,” seeding “outbreaks both in and beyond jails.” In fact, researchers have found that the spread of the coronavirus between jails and communities “likely accounts for a substantial proportion of the racial disparities we have seen in COVID-19 cases across the U.S.” 

KCCF has already taken some steps in this area. When COVID-19 first hit our region nearly two years ago, the County adopted booking restrictions that helped to quickly reduce the number of people incarcerated. But those restrictions applied only to nonviolent misdemeanors. Other counties, recognizing the urgency of the current situation, have gone further. Pierce County does not accept jail bookings on most nonviolent and felony property offenses.  

Second, the prosecutor must pause charging people with nonviolent offenses and reinstitute filing restrictions only to cases that allege serious violence. This is something that the prosecutor did early in the pandemic, and it helped reduce the jail population at the time. It’s imperative that the prosecutor reinstitute these filing restrictions and only file allegations of serious violence. Prosecutors can reassess filing policy once this crisis has passed.  

Unprecedented steps have been taken to protect those employed by the court system from COVID-19 — trials are suspended in King County Superior and District Courts and many hearings are held remotely — yet individuals who are disproportionately Black, Indigenous, and People of Color continue to languish in jail. In a county named for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it’s imperative that we respond with the humanity and compassion Dr. King would have expected of us.

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Anita Khandelwal is the director of the King County Department of Public Defense.

📸 Featured Image: Photo by Alfax Sayed on Unsplash

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