Jail beds go begging, and public pays for them

The News TribuneNovember 14, 2013 

Pierce County Corrections Sgt. Mike Heishman calls out to a prisoner in the newer wing of the Pierce County Jail Sept. 17.


Pierce County leaders don’t want to say it, but we will: They blew a crucial jail deal with the City of Tacoma a year ago.

The city — which had long sent its low-level crooks to the county’s handy downtown jail — wound up sending them to Fife instead. As a result, the county lost $5 million in revenue, which forced a slew of layoffs, closed half of its very expensive lockup and siphoned an extra $2 million out of the county’s operating fund.

The details — reported by The News Tribune’s Sean Robinson on Sunday and Monday — are complex and messy. They involve high expenses driven by an old lawsuit, spiking mental health costs and a state requirement that counties bear 100 percent responsibility for housing the felons who come from their cities.

But much of last year’s $5 million blunder boiled down to the county’s refusal to make a simple economic tradeoff. Tacoma got a better offer from Fife, which has been brokering lower-cost jail beds in King and Yakima counties. The Tacoma Police Department prefers the convenience of the downtown jail, and Robinson reports that county officials didn’t have to match Fife’s rates — they might have beaten the little city’s offer by simply freezing existing jail rates.

Tacoma wouldn’t have paid full freight for its misdemeanor offenders under this deal, but it would have paid $5 million more than nothing. Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy and her aides insisted on nearly full freight and wound up with nothing. A single number demonstrates the fallacy of their arithmetic: that $2 million additional drain on the operating fund.

One troubling thing about this blunder is that county officials won’t admit they made a costly miscalculation. They complain about an uncommunicative TPD and an extravagant jail administration; nothing is their own fault.

The most troubling thing, though, is not the blunder but the crazy binge of jail-building and bed-marketing it dramatizes. Taxpayers have been left on the hook for wasted space in expensive public buildings.

The Pierce County jail, which opened just 10 years ago, cost $59.2 million, financed by a special sales taxes. When its beds sit empty, citizens aren’t getting what they’re paying for.

Thurston County taxpayers face a $43.5 million bill for their own new jail. Its doors haven’t been opened.

Meanwhile, an 802-bed Des Moines jail built by a consortium of King County cities is welcoming Pierce County misdemeanants brokered by Fife.

The federal government has given the Nisqually Tribe $20 million to open a 288-bed jail. The state Department of Corrections is talking about building an entire new prison in the South Sound — and so far, it hasn’t shown any interest in housing its inmates in the Pierce County jail.

For the sake of the taxpayers, the Legislature should be doing its utmost to prevent these ridiculous redundancies.

It can’t be impossible. The state already discourages the creation of redundant hospital construction by requiring health care organizations to demonstrate the need for it. And that’s the private sector, which is all about competition. The state ought to be able to do the equivalent for local criminal justice systems, which shouldn’t be competing on a public expense account.

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