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Back to Archives | Back to January 2005 Contents 

Finding Resources: Addressing Prisoner Transport Costs in King County, Washington

By Julia D. Novak, Regional Vice President, Management Partners, Seattle, Washington, and Denise Turner, Chief, Technical Services Division, King County Sheriff’s Office, Seattle, Washington

n King County, Washington, officials estimate that having 42 separate jurisdictions operate their own criminal justice systems (police department, municipal courts, jails, and unique processes) costs about $670 million each year. These individual systems duplicate services and lead to the inefficient use of resources; but to correct these inefficiencies would require collaboration and new policy direction.

The King County system was placed under a microscope when difficult economic times forced the county sheriff to change a longstanding practice of providing warrant transports to suspects who were arrested in King County. With the sheriff's office out of this crucial role, officers in smaller municipalities throughout King County were forced to transport prisoners to jails in other jurisdictions. Tight budgets and notoriously bad King County traffic made this arrangement intolerable.

To find solutions to this problem the King County Police Chiefs Association convened a summit and invited each of the disciplines directly involved with the criminal justice system in King County to participate in a day-and-a-half event. One hundred forty law enforcement leaders, officers of the courts, jail managers, prosecutors, defense attorneys, elected officials, and municipality representatives attended the summit to address three key issues:

  • Interjurisdictional arresting, transporting, and booking of prisoners

  • Navigating defendants through the judicial process, particularly those who have cases pending in multiple jurisdictions

  • Finding ways to stop the revolving door syndrome and the proliferation of warrants

To accomplish the goal of building cooperation and understanding to make the justice system work better would require careful planning and skillful process management. The King County Police Chiefs Association turned to Management Partners Inc., a consulting firm that specializes in helping local leaders improve government, to help plan, facilitate, and guide the summit. The key was developing a process that allowed everyone to have a voice and encouraged representatives from each discipline to share their concerns. This was done in five basic steps.

Step 1: Create a Process Map
Create a process map that demonstrated the complexity of the problems as defendants in King County navigate their way through the system Figure 1 and Figure 2. This presentation set the stage for creating a climate where everyone was committed to rolling up their sleeves and working on solutions.

Step 2: Define the Problem
The summit participants came from diverse backgrounds in criminal justice. Defense attorneys, although an important part of the process, would only be marginally interested in the sufficiency of the prisoner transport problem. To ensure that all summit participates were aware of the issue, the problem was defined through various examples.

    Example 1:
    The community of Black Diamond in southern King County arrests an individual on a warrant from the City of SeaTac at 2:30 in the afternoon. The arresting officer in Black Diamond must transport the defendant to the King County Jail, a requirement that removes the officer from the street for up to four hours, leaving no coverage in the City of Black Diamond during that period of time. The impact on SeaTac is even greater, because the city must pay for a three-day stay at the King County Jail (at a price of $78 per day, plus an additional $160 booking fee), and lose one of its officers to transport the defendant to and from the jail for court appearances.

    Example 2:
    The case of "Billy Bob Thornside" is even more complex. Billy Bob is convicted in the City of Maple Valley for DUI; it is his fifth conviction. He is sentenced to one year of secured detention, but he also has cases pending in King County's Northeast District Court and in the municipal court in Bellevue. Because of the high cost of detaining someone at the King County Jail, Maple Valley has a contract with the Yakima County jail, where they pay only $50 per day and no booking fee. So Billy Bob is sent over the mountains to Yakima, approximately 130 miles away. When Bellevue is ready to bring Billy Bob back for his pending case, it must first locate him and then issue a warrant and transport order; he must be transported from Yakima to Bellevue for arraignment, motion hearings, trial dates and postponements, and sentencing.

    As for Billy Bob's case in the Northeast District, due to difficulties communicating between the court system, prosecutors, and law enforcement, Billy Bob is sitting in the Yakima County Jail on the day of his Northeast District court date, and becomes a no-show. The court dismisses the case, citing the speedy trial rule, because the defendant was in local custody and was not made available for his trial.

Billy Bob's example highlights several problems that are inherent in the system. First, each time he is transported back to King County, there are additional booking fees. Second, cases are often dropped due to conflicts of location and travel. Third, field officers are spending inordinate amounts of time making transports (after removing them from the street in their own jurisdiction). Finally, moving the suspect multiple times from secure locations adds to officer safety concerns and possibilities for escape.

Step 3: Brainstormed Solutions
After the problem presentation, each of the disciplines met in a group to discuss the following:

  • Their role and responsibilities in the system

  • What was working

  • What was not working

Then, each group brainstormed potential solutions to the problem.

Step 4: Present Solutions
Each group presented its list of potential solutions. Then overlaps were eliminated and like solutions were consolidated. A total of 30 different strategies that had the potential to eliminate inefficiencies were the result. Next, each participant voted on those solutions that they felt had the greatest opportunity to bend the trend of the criminal justice system. Each participant got to identify (vote for) seven solutions that they felt were truly trendbenders.

Based on the votes, seven trendbenders were identified:

  • Develop a regional transportation system to address warrant and in-custody transports between jails and courts

  • Decriminalize some offenses

  • Allow booking at any jail

  • Replace the county executive and the civilian detention staff as administrators of the jail with the King County sheriff

  • Create a unified court system

  • Allow any court to hear any other court's warrants

  • Create a common information management system

Step 5: Develop Action Plan
Participants volunteered to work on one of seven action teams and the last part of the day was spent with each group completing an action plan. The action plan identified the key actions that needed to be taken along with the appropriate person or organization responsible, as well as a timeline. The process design anticipated the need for action teams to form and identify the constraints they would have to work through to implement the various trendbenders as well as the people and programs available to help facilitate the desired changes.

Ongoing Effort
The stakes are high, and doing nothing is not an option. The key to the summit success was creating an atmosphere that fostered collaboration and broke down the barriers created by municipal boundaries and disparate disciplines.

Although the prisoner transport problem isn't fixed yet, at the end of the summit, the King County sheriff announced that his office would reinstate a practice of providing transport services in certain circumstances to eliminate the problem of pulling officers off the street in small jurisdictions, but only until the action teams provide the permanent transportation solution.

One year after the summit, the groups are hard at work developing implementation plans for the various action items. Coordination of the seven groups and communication and periodic updates to summit participants is being managed through the King County Police Chiefs Association's regional issue subcommittee. The work isn't finished, but by progressive leadership the association can address regional issues in a successful and collaborative process. ■

For more information, write to Denise Turner at (



From The Police Chief, vol. 72, no. 1, January 2005. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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