In Olympia, city jail manager aims to make better use of limited space

Corrections officer Sgt. Jen Stiner keeps watch as a trusty inmate does laundry at the Olympia jail on Thursday. The Olympia Police Department is wanting to hold fewer suspects on warrants for lower-level crimes in the city jail.
Corrections officer Sgt. Jen Stiner keeps watch as a trusty inmate does laundry at the Olympia jail on Thursday. The Olympia Police Department is wanting to hold fewer suspects on warrants for lower-level crimes in the city jail. Staff photographer

The Olympia Police Department is working to get more suspects in violent crimes off the street, while also holding fewer suspects on warrants for lower-level crimes in the city jail.

Since taking the position of jail manager in 2012, Chandra Brady has been researching reforms to better suit Olympia’s population. Those policy changes were put into place in February, and so far they appear to be working, said Chief Ronnie Roberts.

“Before, the jail was always full with people picked up on warrants for old charges,” Roberts said. “Now we have more people going into custody on more recent charges. … I think Chandra has done a really good job in the jail of looking at what the community needs and making those changes.”

What it all comes down to is using the jail’s limited resources in the best way possible, Roberts said. That means prioritizing who is booked into the jail.

“We want to ensure that the significant offenders, people arrested for DUI and domestic violence, have a place in the jail,” Roberts said. “We only have so much space, and we really want to use that space in the best way.”

Olympia is unusual in that it actually has a jail, Brady said. Neighboring Lacey and Tumwater don’t operate their own municipal jails and rely on neighboring agencies to house suspects arrested for misdemeanors.

“We’re not doing what everyone else does,” Brady said. “We’re doing what works for Olympia. And here, there’s a huge demand for a city jail.”

People suspected of committing felonies — typically the most serious crimes — are housed in the Thurston County Accountability and Restitution Center, a jail owned and operated by Thurston County and its Sheriff’s Office.

Suspects arrested in Olympia misdemeanor cases are taken to the Olympia City Jail.

The Olympia City Jail currently has 28 beds, but it’s often difficult to actually hold that many people, Brady said. Sometimes, two-person cells are occupied by one person having a mental health crisis. Also, men and women can’t be housed together, and jail staff do their best to separate maximum- and minimum-security inmates.

Inmates serving longer sentences are often housed at the Lewis County Jail.

The problem with the old policy, Brady said, is that people used to be booked on a first-come, first-served basis. The jail was frequently filled to capacity with people arrested on outstanding warrants.

Suspects in these cases had typically been arrested for lower-level, nonviolent crimes, and ended up with outstanding warrants when they didn’t pay a fine or failed to appear in court. As a result, the jail was nearly always full, and people arrested on suspicion of committing other crimes were often released on their personal recognizance without spending any time in jail.

“It’s hard to address people who are causing problems in the community when your jail is always full of people picked up on warrants,” Brady said. “… We had a policy of consistently releasing people.”

In 2014, before the new policies were implemented, suspects were most commonly booked into the jail on warrants for theft, criminal trespass, drinking in public and driving under the influence.

But the new model gives jail staff the ability to evaluate people on a case-by-case basis, prioritizing more dangerous crimes — fourth-degree assault, domestic violence and driving under the influence.

Brady summed up the overall goal of the program in an email sent to Olympia Police Department staff in January.

“Remember, the goal is to book people who are currently presenting a problem in the city of Olympia. In order to make sure we have room for those people, we need to reduce the number of folks that we are beginning to jail/holding in jail that aren’t a current problem,” Brady wrote.

The policies seem to have worked, Brady said. Since changes were made in February, suspects have most commonly been booked for theft, domestic violence assault, driving under the influence and fourth-degree assault.

Changes can been seen in monthly booking numbers, too. For example, in May 2014, 156 people were booked, and 62 percent of those people were booked on warrants. But in May 2015, 85 people were booked into the Olympia City Jail, and only 32 percent were booked on outstanding warrants.

The goal is to have the jail operating at about 80 percent capacity so that there’s room to book new inmates who need to be taken off the street, Brady said.

It also provided officers with a resource to identify people who been arrested for misdemeanors and don’t have ID cards, Brady said. These people can be brought in, booked and fingerprinted.

“That way, we know exactly who we’re dealing with,” Brady said. “That doesn’t work if the jail is too full.”

The jail also has a limited the number of people they transport back to Olympia after they’re picked up in other communities. Jail staff use the same general guidelines regarding whom to transport as they use for general booking. People with warrants for crimes against people will often be brought back to Olympia, while many those with warrants for nonviolent crimes will be looked at more critically.

“We’re not going to disrupt their lives, bring them back here, just so we can release them back into Olympia,” Brady said.

There are, of course, exceptions to the rule, Brady said. For example, one person was picked up on warrant for a nonviolent crime after he made 40 unfounded 911 calls.

“This person wasn’t being violent, but they were being a nuisance,” Brady said. “We had a way to take them out of that situation for awhile.”

The city jail also doesn’t hold people picked up on warrants issued by other jurisdictions.

The change in booking policy doesn’t mean that people picked up on warrants will get off scot-free, Roberts said. Instead, the department is using other programs and social services.

“It doesn’t help people to have them being booked over and over,” Roberts said. “This is a quality of life issue. What we want to do is make the best decision on the street and have the least amount of impact on those involved.”

Amelia Dickson: 360-754-5445