We live in a society of specialization. Look around and you will see niche businesses that employ experts in fields that did not exist a generation ago. With all of that expertise, you might expect that massively expensive public programs are being administered by professionals specifically trained for the task.
Of course I’m joking. Public projects are all too often managed by people (i.e. government officials) who have little or no training for the job.
On the national level, the Affordable Care Act website is a classic example. The site’s epic failure to launch can be attributed to the toxic interference of government officials operating outside their realm. It is further proof that Beltway logic can not be translated into zeroes and ones.
Locally, the Pierce County Jail continues to hemorrhage money for a similar reason. Officials from county government and the sheriff’s office, who bear the expensive and unenviable burdern of housing the county’s most dangerous and unstable criminals, have found themselves mired in a financial crisis largely of their own creation.
But the problem goes much further than the borders of Pierce County.
Sean Robinson’s report on the region’s correctional facilities’ mad scramble for revenue is a compelling look into an expensive public responsibility that is increasingly becoming a private sector enterprise (TNT 11/12).
Robinson describes the fallout when police agencies who operate jails compete feverishly for revenue. Some choose to build (like the new SCORE facility in Des Moines), while others bemoan the empty beds that burn holes in their budgets (a la Pierce County). At the root of this costly competition is a breakdown in cooperative government.
The concept of “jail beds as a commodity” is relatively new to the region. It is a trend that administrators on both sides of these high end negotiations were unable to foresee, and not because they are dim. It is because they are police officers and public officials, not savvy business professionals. As such, they lack the necessary skills to navigate their way through what has become a competitive marketplace for jail space.
Despite their lack of business acumen, these same police chiefs and sheriffs are currently spending millions of taxpayer dollars on incarceration models that either do not work or else run counter to emerging trends. That is why the current game of monopoly is playing out, why cities such as Fife are skimming a profit by shipping inmates to Yakima, why the Yakima jail, which previously shed jobs after the new SCORE facility was built, is currently hiring, and it is why Pierce County, the last agency to realize it had a player on the board, is laying off jailers and watching precious revenue dollars slip through its fingers.
It should not be this way. All of these agencies, from the smallest to the largest, serve the public. Their primary function is not to finagle a few dollars at the expense of a neighboring jurisdiction. It is to protect and serve the community, a difficult enough endeavor in the best of economic times.
When police and civic leaders finally gather to discuss this systemic issue, they should first recognize the obvious: Maintaining adequate jail space for suspected criminals is a societal necessity. Then, they should work together to create a cooperative and comprehensive regional plan that has been vetted by experts who understand more about market strategies, emerging business trends and accounting principles than the average public servant.
In the end, this is about job knowledge. When a faucet leaks, no one expects the cable guy to fix it. When the car breaks down, the dentist will not be much help.
And when multiple organizations need a new plan to securely house thousands of potentially dangerous individuals at a fair and equal price, that may not be the time to call 911.