Franklin County jail faces capacity issues

By Kristi Pihl, Herald staff writer December 14, 2009 

PASCO -- Franklin County appears no closer to solving its overcrowding problem at the county jail.

The jail is not currently overcrowded, said Franklin County Sheriff Richard Lathim, but he thinks that won't last long.

For the first six months of the year, the jail averaged 210 inmates daily, he said. In the past 10 years, the average daily population has increased by about 5 percent annually.

If that continues, the jail will not be able to hold all of those sentenced to jail time in 2010, Lathim said.

He will have to decide who will go to jail and who won't, he said.

"When you are maxed out, you are maxed out," he said.

A sales tax increase of 0.3 percent to pay to expand the jail and build a new police station in Pasco failed by 642 votes in November.

The failure of the public safety tax measure, combined with Franklin County's proposed 2010 budget cuts of $1.5 million, will put a double squeeze on the jail.

With the cuts, corrections lost four people, Lathim said. And with fewer officers, the jail may be unable to house the current average next year, he added.

"I am going to do everything I can to keep the county safe and at the same time ensure the safety of inmates," Lathim said.

Benton County has the opposite problem. Benton County Sheriff Larry Taylor said he rents jail beds to the U.S. marshals, the state Department of Corrections and the city of Olympia. Last week, the city of Yakima inquired about renting space.

Taylor said he has offered space to Franklin County and Pasco. But if Yakima decides to rent jail space, there will be no more rental room at the Benton County jail, which has 796 beds.

Renting beds helps Benton County keep its jail cost low, Taylor said. They've been the lowest in the state for five straight years.

Lathim said renting beds from Benton County isn't an option for him. When the Franklin County has to lay people off, there isn't money to rent jail space.

"We really can't afford it," he said.

Franklin County Commissioner Brad Peck said renting beds from Benton County was discussed several months ago. But that would mean rental costs for Franklin County, plus the risk of transporting prisoners to the Benton County jail and back for court appointments.

Pasco isn't at the point where it would need to contract for jail space from Benton County, said City Manager Gary Crutchfield.

That could change if space issues aren't solved at the Franklin County jail, he said, because there may be no room for the misdemeanor cases city police send there.

Jail space is an important part of keeping the crime rate down, Crutchfield said.

Adding a new jail would increase the number of cells, and therefore the number of inmates that could be kept at one time, he said.

Peck said the needs that led the county and Pasco to put a criminal justice tax measure on the November ballot haven't changed.

One option is to reduce the number of people who need to be jailed while continuing to protect the public, Peck said. But the changes needed would have to involve the courts and the state Legislature, he said.

Franklin County commissioners would have to decide whether to put another criminal justice tax attempt on the ballot next year, Peck said. He doubts the county would do it unless Pasco joined in as well.

The city council would likely discuss running another joint public safety tax measure if the county requested input, Crutchfield said.

Increased jail space and a Pasco police station are needed to accommodate growth, he said.

It would be better to build soon, Crutchfield said, because the cost of new construction will only increase.

The current jail was built in 1986. Its cells are already double-bunked, meaning two people share a room meant for one, Lathim said.

The county population has grown since the jail was built and that's likely to continue, Peck said.

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