Clark County criminal justice officials and county councilors met Wednesday to discuss reducing the jail’s inmate population amid the raging COVID-19 pandemic, concluding that the issue needs to be fixed fast while keeping the facility’s long-term goals in mind.
How the county will effectively achieve those goals, however, remains up in the air. Jail Chief Ric Bishop presented several possible solutions and outlined the consequences of doing nothing to reduce the jail’s inmate population.
Potential steps include implementing bail for people accused of nonviolent class B and C felonies, expanding electronic home confinement in lieu of jail and reinstating deferred misdemeanor mandatory sentencing.
“If we do nothing, we’ll run completely out of room, and eventually, there will be litigation,” Bishop said.
Ignoring the problem also means that intake housing, used to accommodate the general population, will eventually not exist. Without it, introducing the novel coronavirus into the dense jail population will become more likely.
Wednesday’s work session was scheduled after Sheriff Chuck Atkins noticed the inmate population was starting to climb following a sharp reduction earlier this year. But the need to address the issue has recently become more urgent due to a COVID-19 outbreak at the jail.
As of Thursday, the most recent available data, there were 35 known COVID-19 cases among Clark County inmates, according to the jail’s COVID-19 information line. There were no known cases among jail staff.
Criminal justice officials have met several times throughout the year to discuss the jail’s inmate population and steps needed to prevent it from getting the virus.
Earlier this year, general criteria were established for the types of crimes and cases assessed for potential release into pretrial supervision. (The criteria includes nonviolent cases, such as drug and property crimes. No cases involving sex offenses are reviewed, and generally, no domestic violence cases meet the criteria.)
In mid-March, the jail housed 313 inmates, a low not seen by Bishop since 1985. At that time, he credited the releases for allowing the jail to avoid an outbreak. As of Friday, there were 404 inmates housed there, according to the jail’s roster.
On Wednesday, Bishop told the county councilors that the response from local justice officials addressed what was believed to be a short-term event. Now, the jail is nine months into its pandemic response, he said, and a long-term strategy is required.
The jail’s inmate population has increased because of reduced court operations, the jail chief said. Due to the surge of COVID-19 cases across the state and locally, Clark County courts announced Tuesday that all new jury trials are suspended into January. Criminal jury trials had just recommenced in mid-September.
With no criminal jury trials happening, the average time inmates spend inside the jail has increased from about 17 to 36 days. A total of 54 people have been jailed for a year or longer, awaiting trial, Bishop said.
The jail has previously suggested using the county’s Jail Work Center, a 100-bed minimum-security facility, to spread out the inmate population. The facility remains open but has not been used for housing for nearly six months.
However, no action has been taken toward its use. Bishop said an architect is required to design security upgrades to ensure inmates can safely be housed there. Without the upgrades, there is “increased potential for escape,” and for violence and contraband, such as drugs, to make it inside the center, Bishop said.
Another option involves “renting” beds at other correctional facilities in the state. Bishop sent out requests for bed rentals in October. Two counties responded: Klickitat and Skamania. Only 15 beds are available at those jails, and if officials take that route, the monthly cost is $37,200.
A long-term option floated by the jail would entail upgrading the work center to house the county’s juvenile inmates, and using the juvenile facility for medium-security adult inmates.
Clark County Juvenile Court Administrator Christine Simonsmeier said the juvenile justice center’s housing facility has single cells, which would be needed at the work center; the change would require upgrades and construction.
She said it’s also required to offer schooling for juvenile inmates, and there is no classroom at the work center.
Moving juvenile inmates to the work center would require hiring eight to 10 additional staff, because they would need to be transported to the courtroom. (The juvenile housing facility is within the juvenile justice center.)
“I’m very cautious about rushing into a short-term solution that may need to be rolled back,” Simonsmeier said in a phone interview Thursday. “It’s difficult to estimate when things (associated with the pandemic) will ease up, and short-term fixes need to be explored along with the main jail’s long-term goals.”
Long-needed upgrades to the jail cannot be ignored, Bishop argued, adding that inmate and deputy safety is at stake. The jail’s immediate requests include replacing all medium-security windows with high-security, double-pane windows at a cost of about $90,000, and upgrading intake units with transparent barriers over viewing and meal ports, estimated to cost about $357,000.
Simonsmeier said that a number of aspects driving incarceration, such as arrest practices, should be considered, and all stakeholders’ input is required.
The councilors echoed that sentiment during the work session. They requested the Clark County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office’s involvement at next week’s meeting.