After City Council Member Tanya Woo let slip that the City may contract with the South Correctional Entity in Des Moines, also known as SCORE, frustrated King County Public Defenders sent a letter to the City explaining how switching to SCORE could hinder their ability to do their job, which is to provide effective representation for their clients. Right now, Mayor Bruce Harrell seems to only be toying with the idea, giving stakeholders, constituents, and anyone who doesn’t want to lock people up for low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors, time to talk him out of the plan.   

The idea comes as King County Jail continues to restrict Seattle Police Department (SPD) officers’ ability to jail people charged with low-level and non-violent crimes such as low-value theft, criminal trespass, and public drug use. If the Mayor implements the scheme to ship unconvicted people miles away, it could lead to upheaval in the municipal court system, and friction with public defenders, who say using SCORE could lead to violations of defendants’ constitutional rights. 

The City’s existing contract with King County for jail services runs through 2030. Mayor spokesperson Jamie Housen said it would be incorrect to say that SPD officers may soon be booking people at nearby jails. At this point, the Mayor has not discussed any plans about switching jails with key agencies, such as Seattle Municipal Court, the King County Department of Public Defense, or the King County Jail itself. Housen said the City would need to have those discussions before making such a drastic shift. But Housen also said the Mayor’s office planned to do its “due diligence” exploring other options for secure housing as the City needs “adequate jail beds.” The office would not say what other jail options the City had considered. 

The King County Jail’s booking restrictions apply only to non-violent misdemeanors, such as criminal trespass and public drug use, not felony charges or misdemeanor crimes that create a public safety risk. The jail still books people on charges for misdemeanor assault, domestic violence, DUIs and other alcohol-related traffic crimes, stalking, violations of no contact orders, as well as all misdemeanor weapons charges, which Davison said made up 80% of misdemeanor cases, along with criminal trespass and harassment. The jail also makes exceptions when officers can prove a public safety risk and for people listed as part of Republican City Attorney Ann Davison’s High Utilizer Initiative (HUI) program, which focuses on people cycling through the jail system. Since October, the jail has booked an average of 1.5 people per month under the HUI list exception, according to data from the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. 

On May 2, the King County Public Defender’s union, SEIU 925, sent a letter to the City strongly opposing the plan. Last year, after King County contracted with SCORE for additional jail beds, the union filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint since the County never bargained with them about sending people charged with crimes to SCORE. The union gave examples of how SCORE hurts their ability to properly defend their clients by preventing defender investigators from accessing clients 24/7, the low quality of video calls from the facility, the lack of secure and speedy internet, issues with overall privacy when attorneys speak with their clients, and SCORE’s difficulty transporting people to court appearances. The union said using SCORE could interfere with defendants’ constitutional right to an attorney and extend case times. King County ended its contract with SCORE in September 2023, after less than a year. In that time four people died in custody at SCORE, Publicola reported.

King County Corrections Guild President Dennis Folk said he believed the City, and the people the City wants to jail, would be better served at the King County Jail. The County has a courtroom in the building, private rooms for attorneys to meet with clients, and Seattle Municipal Court employees with in-house offices to screen people. Moving the entire operation to SCORE, or any other jail, could cause logistical issues similar to what King County dealt with when it contracted with SCORE, Folk said.

Still, the jail’s pesky booking restrictions really irk Davison, SPD officers, and Council President Sara Nelson. Davison has complained about the jail’s booking restrictions, claiming they’ve led to no accountability for people accused of certain crimes. SPD Lt. Matt Hendry also complained about the booking restrictions in an email to Nelson, saying that when officers can’t book people into the jail it “erodes morale.” In response, Nelson said she agreed, but “unfortunately, the Mayor administers our contract...” Nelson said she thinks the Mayor should claim breach of contract or renegotiate so the City pays only for the average number of jail beds used, and then take the rest of the money and contract with another jail.

In the email to Hardy, Nelson made a gripe about how the City pays $22 million for a jail contract with the County, seemingly complaining that the City pays a lot of money for 200-250 jail beds. On Thursday the jail held just about 150 people on solely misdemeanor charges. Still, sending someone to SCORE for a crime such as criminal trespass—which could mean that an unhoused person tried one too many times to use the bathroom at a grocery store—also seems like a waste of resources. SPD officers would have to drive that person about 16 miles to Des Moines, book them into SCORE, then drive 16 miles back, not to mention all the changes Seattle Municipal Court would need to make, either transporting more defendants or setting up video only appearances for people in jail. All that, so SPD could focus less on crimes with a real public safety risk, and instead boost officers "morale" by throwing people in jail for low-level crimes.