Let’s work cooperatively to find solutions for county jail

September 22, 2013 

The Pierce County Jail was mugged by the recession. And we need to rethink how we will stay safe in the future.

The recession had a serious negative impact on the county and all the cities and towns. One result was that the City of Tacoma stopped using the Pierce County Jail as its exclusive place to book those arrested for misdemeanors. Misdemeanors include crimes ranging from vandalism and trespassing to simple assault, driving under the influence and domestic violence.

Tacoma chose to book these arrestees into the jail in Fife, which offered a lower rate for holding inmates. Both Tacoma and Fife were reacting to very real economic pressures and incentives and were not doing anything improper.

The impact to the Pierce County Jail, however, was significant. Revenue from jail contracts helped fund the jail and its operations. Our contracts benefited cities while some of the revenue helped to offset the costs of housing those arrested for felonies: crimes like murder, robbery, burglary, rape and arson.

By state law, Pierce County is required to house all felons arrested anywhere in the county. We cannot charge one penny for their room and board, care and custody. Perhaps that’s not fair, but it’s the law. More than 80 percent of our jail population consists of felons. So when jail contract revenue is reduced, Pierce County still has to pay all of the costs of housing all of the felons.

The reduction in revenue we experienced cost Pierce County about $5 million in 2013. It is a very serious problem. It was not caused by any single person or agency in the county. It is this problem which has prompted controversial cutbacks in jail staffing and jail space.

I am concerned that these cutbacks will slowly degrade the functions of the criminal justice system. Police officers will be away from patrol spending time searching for a place to book those they arrest. Courts will be waiting longer for defendants to arrive in court. Defense attorneys will have to check multiple jail locations to find clients for conferences.

These are the potential problems we are facing. Things will not fall apart tomorrow, but they will not function as well as before.

So what should we do about this? What can we do to address the serious financial issue while keeping the criminal justice system on track?

For some time, I have urged the county to attract revenue back to our jail by lowering the daily jail bed rental rate. This would offset the fixed costs of the county’s requirement to house felons and help the criminal justice system function in a more timely manner.

Some would argue that this would attract less revenue than before when higher rates were charged. But would we rather have some revenue or no revenue to apply to our fixed costs of housing felons? Would we rather slow down the criminal justice system or see that it functions as effectively as possible?

I believe that this fixed cost-mitigation approach, something which the business community understands, would serve to lessen the financial impact on the county. And, incidentally, it would prevent some layoffs and save some jobs.

Unfortunately, I did not have support from the executive in this approach to a solution. And so, if required to do so, we will be making cutbacks to accommodate the budget shortfall.

So where do we go from here? First, we need to leave the contracting door open provided we can rent beds for an amount greater than our costs. I believe that we can do this. But it will require that we do not insist on charging rates far in excess of what cities are paying now.

Next, although we have already eliminated 41 jail positions over the past four years and now are set to lay off 16 additional Corrections officers, we need to work with our employees to further pursue efficiencies. I stand ready to work with our bargaining units on options such as flexible work schedules.

Finally, we need to rethink the way we deliver jail services in Pierce County. I am working with my colleagues in city police departments to develop a cooperative, consolidated approach to providing jail services.

This approach would combine all local municipal and county jail space and then have municipal law enforcement and the Sheriff’s Department cooperate to set jail rates, run alternative jail programs and operate jails. I believe that this is what is necessary for effective and efficient use of jail resources.

These are the solutions I have put forward. I understand that the county is not obligated to adopt my solutions. But I have a responsibility and an obligation to provide effective law enforcement as well as safe, secure and humane jail services.

So, I will continue to propose and work toward solutions. We don’t need to fix blame; we need to fix problems.

Paul Pastor is the Pierce County sheriff.

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