Sheriff needs to step up to county jail problem

We have been meeting with Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor for nearly a year to help him adjust his jail operations since the City of Tacoma decided in 2012 to shift many of its prisoners to Fife’s jail.

We have offered the expertise of the county’s budget staff, and we have always been responsive to his concerns.

Unfortunately, the sheriff did not submit a thorough plan to adjust his operations, even though Tacoma’s decision to take its prisoners to Fife has resulted in a 60 percent reduction in Pierce County Jail bookings, causing the loss of $5 million in booking and incarceration fees.

After 10 months of waiting for the sheriff, we had to act in order to stop the financial bleeding. On Tuesday, the County Council is prepared to vote on a proposal to trim the jail’s 2013 budget by 5.7 percent. This reduces the jail’s $52.5 million budget by $3 million. We are willing to backfill the remaining $2 million loss with other county funds.

It’s a difficult decision that will result in the layoffs of 16 employees of the jail. But leaders are elected to make tough choices, and we are frustrated that Pastor’s only solution so far is for the county to throw more money at a worsening problem.

It doesn’t make sense to maintain existing staffing levels when his former “customers” are going to other local jails.

There’s been a lot of hyperbole and misinformation over the past week. We were especially dismayed to read in the Sept. 8 News Tribune that Pastor’s chief spokesman, Ed Troyer, flatly blamed other county leaders for the layoffs. The next day, the sheriff himself inflamed the situation by raising safety concerns during remarks to the County Council.

Let’s review some key facts.

The sheriff is a separately elected official, just like the county executive and members of the County Council. He is responsible for managing two distinct portions of the public safety sector: the Corrections Bureau, which operates the jail, and the patrol section, which keeps our communities safe.

To be clear, none of this discussion affects the patrol section. In fact, we have added funding for patrol deputies in recent years, and we also found a way for the sheriff to establish a long-awaited precinct in the Parkland/Spanaway area next year.

The jail population is declining for two main reasons: Tacoma’s decision to enter a contract with the Fife jail (Lakewood already made a similar move) and lower crime rates. You read that right. According to the sheriff’s own data, crimes per 1,000 residents in Pierce County have declined by 29.5 percent since 2010.

As a result, jail bookings this year were down 2,304 through July when compared to the same period last year. Bookings and population will be even lower next year when the impact of Tacoma’s move is felt over a full 12 months.

Now, there’s no cause for alarm. If someone is arrested for a felony in Pierce County, that person will still be brought to the Pierce County Jail. And Tacoma and Lakewood are still arresting misdemeanants and taking them to jail – just not to our jail.

That’s why we were surprised to see comments in the newspaper from a corrections deputy who was just hired four months ago and now faces a layoff. Why did the sheriff hire a new employee when he knew he needed to resize jail operations to serve a smaller population?

The bottom line is we spend three-quarters of the county’s general fund budget on public safety. The sheriff has acknowledged his need to lower costs through more efficient and effective jail operations. This is a mutual goal, and we are committed to doing our part to help keep our communities safe.

Pat McCarthy is the Pierce County executive. Joyce McDonald is chair of the Pierce County Council.