When cities and counties have a serious conflict they can’t settle among themselves, it’s really a state problem. The Legislature should start paying attention to the predicament of the Pierce County Jail.
That predicament is a result of municipalities acting in their own interests and the interests of their citizens — good local impulses that add up to a bad regional result.
It started in 2009 when the City of Lakewood began moving its low-level offenders and arrestees from the Pierce County Jail to cities that ran cheaper lockups, including Fife’s 36-bed operation.
Pierce County rolled with that punch. But then, in December, the City of Tacoma — the county’s biggest jail “customer” — decided to do likewise, diverting its own misdemeanants to Fife’s jurisdiction. This left the county reeling with the loss of millions of dollars; Sheriff Paul Pastor is now ordering the closure of two 84-bed dorms at the jail and elimination of as many as 30 jobs there.
Tacoma and Lakewood officials are grabbing savings dangling in front of their noses. Fife officials are doing something more imaginative: turning their small city into a big-time broker of jail capacity.
They’ve recently bargained for available beds in Yakima, Wapato, Sunnyside and the South Correctional Entity in Des Moines; they’re brokering those beds to Lakewood and Tacoma.
This wouldn’t hurt the county so much if Lakewood and Tacoma were sending all their people to Fife. What they are actually doing is saddling the Pierce County Jail with their felons, accused felons and severely mentally ill, who cost much more to control, guard and treat.
The county had been able to subsidize those costs with city reimbursements for petty offenders. Now the shift of those cheaper arrestees to the Fife archipelago is allowing Tacoma and Lakewood to pocket the difference — and leaving the Pierce County Jail bleeding from the pockets.
Aside from the financial crisis for the county, there’s a potential threat to public safety. Had those two 84-bed pods been unavailable last week, for example, the Pierce County Jail wouldn’t have had the capacity to house the inmates who were actually in it.
When the pods do close, some criminals who belong behind bars might instead wind up in home-monitoring or some other more relaxed arrangement. Relaxed arrangements are not great deterrents to crime.
We see no solution at the local level. How can you blame Tacoma officials — who are dealing with their own fiscal crisis — for seizing a perfectly legal opportunity to save?
Fife officials, too, are operating squarely within the law. It seems only a matter of time before other enterprising municipalities or Indian tribes adopt Fife’s creative business model.
Paging state lawmakers.
Washington mandates that its counties bear all the costs of caring for jailed felons, including psychiatric treatment and expensive medical procedures. Nobody else does this outside of state prisons. The Legislature has an obvious interest in not watching idly as a major urban jail slides into crippling distress.