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Counties Split On Bid to Ease Jail Overcrowding

PLUMMER, Idaho – A request for a special $25 million appropriation by the Coeur d’Alene Tribe for a new public safety complex in northern Idaho is “in the pipeline,” according to Lindsay Nothern, a spokesman for U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo.

If approved, the complex would include a jail large enough to accommodate inmates from overcrowded jails in surrounding jurisdictions.

Inmate overflow at county jails is due to several factors, including tougher drug laws, a population boom in the region and a burgeoning state prison system that relies on county jails to house about 600 offenders statewide.

The new tribal complex would include a jail for adults, juvenile detention area, courtrooms, police headquarters and space for other responder services.

“We’ll be looking at anything involving public safety, hazardous material, first responders, emergency medical services and the fire department,” Coeur d’Alene Tribal Planning Director and Vice Chairman Francis SiJohn said.

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson is among those asking Idaho’s congressional delegation to consider the initiative. His jail has been at overcapacity since July, and the county spends more than $300,000 a year to house inmates elsewhere.

“A jail facility would have the ability to hold federal prisoners and charge federal agencies for the holding of those prisoners,” Watson wrote in a letter of support to Coeur d’Alene Tribal Police Chief Keith Hutcheson.

“Additionally, this proposed facility could be used by local agencies to help relieve overcrowding at county jails in the northern Idaho area.

“We could all benefit as well with a secure facility in this area that could be used for the transfer of inmates on Idaho’s north-south corridor.”

Latah County, which spans that corridor, also endorsed the plan.

“A central jail holding facility located between Moscow (Idaho) and Coeur d’Alene would help with jail overcrowding in our respective county jails in the 10 northern counties,” Sheriff Wayne Rausch wrote on behalf of the tribe.

“We look forward to helping collaborate on this project and hope to see it come to fruition soon.”

The endorsements were included in the appropriation request package, which is moving through federal channels despite an effort by two other north Idaho counties to block it. Shoshone and Benewah counties, where jails are not overflowing, earn revenue by housing inmates from other jurisdictions. They told Idaho’s congressional delegation they don’t want any competition from the tribe.

“It would hurt Shoshone County,” Commissioner Jim Vergobbi said.

“We house many state and federal prisoners along with our own. That gives us a huge income that helps support our jail.”

A tribal facility with room for nontribal inmates could result in an annual loss of $200,000 to $1 million a year, to the detriment of Shoshone County property owners, Vergobbi said.

“We’re not at war with the tribe. We’re just trying to do the right things for the constituents that we serve,” he said. “We don’t blame the tribe for making the request. If we thought the feds would consider giving our county $25 million, we could do some things with it as well.”

An article in the St. Maries Gazette Record newspaper reported that Benewah County also wants to build a new jail, and that revenue earned by detaining federal, state and other county’s inmates is critical for the project to pencil out.

“If they build a jail, they would take that revenue away from us,” Benewah County Commissioner Jack Buell was quoted as saying about the Coeur d’Alene Tribe.

Voters in Kootenai County rejected the idea of investing money in a jail expansion when they voted down a $50 million bond last year. That’s when county commissioners asked the tribe if it had any options.

“The Kootenai County commissioners approached us after their bond issue failed, looking for a creative partnership,” Coeur d’Alene Tribal Chairman Chief Allan said. “We thought we could do a model.”

It wouldn’t be the first time the tribe and Kootenai County joined forces to access funds for a needed public service. They recently formed a partnership to establish a free public bus system with regular daily stops in cities along northern Idaho’s populous I-90 corridor, with rural shuttles to the reservation.

“The tribe has an opportunity to get some dollars and funding where we can’t tap into it,” Commissioner Gus Johnson said. “So, it’s a wonderful deal.

I don’t see any negatives.”

Johnson praised Allan’s willingness to think outside the box.

“Chief Allan and that group down there are progressive,” Johnson said, referring to the southern part of the county, which encompasses part of the reservation.

“They’re thinking ahead, and they’re thinking of ways not just to help their group, but Kootenai County as well.”

He believes a facility administered by the tribe would be well run.

“I know the Coeur d’Alene Tribe, and they do everything top-drawer. I believe they would fund it properly and run it properly,” Johnson said.