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Advocates push to limit King County jail bookings amid omicron surge

Meanwhile, the prosecuting attorney's office argues that most of those who are currently booked at the county's jails pose a public safety risk.

SEATTLE — King County officials, including the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) and Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, are making arguments against limiting jail bookings amid the largest wave of COVID-19 the county’s seen yet.

Meanwhile, the Department of Public Defense (DPD), the corrections officers’ union and advocates for those who are incarcerated are arguing for such limits to reduce the spread of the omicron variant.

The two sides are being presented before the county’s Law, Justice, Health and Human Services Committee Tuesday in back-to-back briefings.

On Monday, Satterberg’s office released a statement following many requests from the public that it stop seeking arrest warrants from judges, stop asking judges to hold suspects in jail before trial and to start motioning for suspects to be removed from jail prior to their trial dates.

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“We believe that making blanket decisions on these lines would be irresponsible and would create significant public safety concerns,” the statement reads in part.

Satterberg’s office said there are currently more than 200 murder defendants, hundreds of sex offenders, repeat felony-level offenders and “scores” of domestic abusers in King County Jail, adding that the prosecution looks at each case individually and makes arguments based on public safety as well as the safety of those being held at the jail and the jail staff.

In its presentation to the committee Tuesday, the DPD and its partners argue the omicron variant is “amplifying the disproportionate harm the BIPOC and/or people experiencing poverty” experience in the criminal legal system.

The DPD argues that the county adopts a policy that restricts short-term jail stays for those who are arrested on non-violent offenses without a warrant or charging decisions before they are booked.

Examples of the kinds of crimes the DPD proposes to have covered by the policy include possession of a stolen vehicle, theft of a motor vehicle, residential burglary and all crimes related to controlled substances including possession with intent to sell, deliver or conspire.

The DPD points to booking limits implemented early in the pandemic, at which time Satterberg’s office stopped filing charges for all lower offenses, as a reason to renew such limits.

In an email to DPD Director Anita Khandelwal, Satterberg’s office responded to this, writing, “Because we already assisted in getting the inmate numbers down significantly at the start of the pandemic, there are very few inmates who are in custody now solely on less-serious offenses.”

Satterberg spoke during the council committee meeting Tuesday, continuing to argue against "blanket" restrictions on who officers can and can't arrest. 

“I do have an issue with just a blanket booking restriction telling every police officer in King County that if you catch somebody burglarizing a home, you have to give them a ticket, don’t bring them in. If you catch somebody in a stolen car – even though they may have five other stolen car cases in the last six months – you can’t bring them in,” Satterberg said.

In a Tuesday release, King County Executive Dow Constantine's office said that 806 people have tested positive for COVID-19 in the last two years at county jails. In that same period, there have been nearly 30,000 bookings.

As of Tuesday, there were 1,372 people in custody across the county’s jails, 61 of whom have tested positive for COVID-19 and another 63 of whom are in quarantine.

As for the Patricia H. Clark Children and Family Justice Center, 16 youths have tested positive for COVID-19 over the last two years out of the 685 youths the facility has admitted, Constantine’s office said.

Among King County corrections staff, which consists of 900 employees, 349 corrections workers have tested positive for COVID-19, including 195 of whom have tested positive since Dec. 13, 2021, according to Constantine’s office. On Tuesday, there were 33 uniformed jail staff members on leave due to the virus.

In early January, the King County jail system faced its largest outbreak of the pandemic with 69 inmates positive for the virus at one time and another 40 staff members on leave. 

“Health and safety are our top concerns at the jails, and throughout the pandemic, DAJD has taken all available steps to follow public health guidance and ensure that everyone in our facilities can be there safely. We are committed to doing what’s best for our frontline employees, people in custody, and visitors, including the attorneys and other professionals who serve the jail population,” Constantine said in a statement Tuesday.

The DAJD is currently only allowing in-person visitation at jails for professionals such as attorneys and health care providers.


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