The trickledown of the decision by Tacoma and Lakewood officials to shift small-time criminal suspects from Pierce County Jail to the less-expensive Fife jail system has jumped from empty jail cells to budget sheets. Jail operations are $5 million over budget this year, and it will likely get worse next year. Budget projections put that gap at about $6.5 million.
The county budget was approved on Tuesday. It trims the jail’s budget by 5.7 percent, from $52.5 million. About $2 million of the cut will be covered by reserve accounts and sales tax revenue. About $3 million in cuts and the layoffs of 16 corrections officers and the demoting of four others covers the rest. How next year’s $6.5 million projected shortfall will be backfilled remains unknown. But the direction seems clear.
“We need to resize the operation,” Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy said.
To understand the issue, some history is in order.
The 1,700-bed jail opened in 2003 and was funded by a 1999 voter-approved bond. It was built because the existing county jail was overcrowded and under a federal order to improve living conditions for inmates. The jail had 400 corrections officers and other workers around its peak in 2008 and has shrunk to 364 on its payroll in 2013. The 10-year-old federal decree that set staffing and living conditions concerning everything from medical care and sleeping conditions ended last year. The jail’s average population, down from about 1,400 to about 1,000 this year, is due largely to the loss of misdemeanor inmates from Tacoma and Lakewood as well as a 30-percent drop in crime rates in Pierce County since 2010. Those factors mean bookings at the Pierce County facility have dropped by about half.
Staffing changes haven’t kept up with that shrinkage, however, McCarthy said. The staffing level after the layoff is set at an inmate population of about 1,200.
The loss of the jail’s biggest “customers” to nearby Fife has prompted county officials to seek ways to operate the jail differently, largely by it landing new jail contracts, having it serve a regional role as well as seeking potential legislative shift that could change reimbursement rates from outside agencies. Washington State Patrol, for example, doesn’t pay anything when its troopers arrest suspects for offenses along Pierce County’s stretch of Interstate 5. The State Department of Corrections pays a flat $65 a day for housing its inmates at the jail but doesn’t cover any medical treatments the county is required to provide. None of these fixes could avoid cuts, at least this year.
“None of those strategies could be implemented in time,” McCarthy said. “It is going to take time to do that.”
A study of jail options is underway, with a report expected in October.
Pierce County isn’t alone with jailhouse blues either, as King County and Thurston County also have shortfalls. They, too, built new jails and have more beds than inmates to fill them, creating budget shortfalls. Thurston County’s new jail has been mothballed without opening, for example, until demand warrants the new space. Counties around the state responded to rising populations and higher crime rates by building new jails. Then everything changed. Crime rates dropped. Home “house arrest” monitoring became more popular and government budgets shrunk.
Lakewood stopped sending misdemeanor criminals to Pierce County Jail in 2009. It now uses facilities in Fife and Puyallup and the Nisqually Reservation. Tacoma followed suit earlier this year. Both now send their low-level criminals to Fife because it charges less. Bookings into Fife jail cost just $20 compared to $225 at the county facility. Daily stays cost $65 compared to $85 in Pierce County, although its fees include medical reviews not covered by Fife’s fee. Fife actually doesn’t really house many inmates at all.
“We are more of a receiving center,” Fife Police Chief Brad Blackburn said.
The Fife jail opened in 1997, and was first just used as a short-term holding facility for inmates attending Fife Municipal Court until 2001, when it became a fully operational correctional facility. It now has contracts with Algona, Black Diamond, Lakewood, Milton, Des Moines, Pacific, Steilacoom, Bonney Lake, Roy, Ruston, Normandy Park, Tacoma and Eatonville. Since Fife only has 35 beds, it sends inmates to jails across the mountains in Yakima, Sunnyside and Wapato, as well as South Correctional Entity, a jail for low-level inmates in Des Moines that opened in 2011. Washington State Department of Corrections also contracts with Fife for some beds.
The jail agreements with small cities and agencies were Fife’s response to a $600,000 shortfall in the jail budget last year. Other options even included talk about closing the jail. But the math worked out with a collection of jail contracts. The budget is in the black, but caused red lines in Pierce County’s jail budget.