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Tag: Pierce County Jail


Help – not jail – for Pierce County’s mentally ill

This editorial will appear in Friday’s print edition.

They’re called the Top 55, which sounds like a good thing. It’s not.

They’re revolving-door customers of the Pierce County Jail – repeat offenders who have also had contact with the mental health system. Many have a history of substance abuse.

As a group, the Top 55 puts an inordinate financial strain on the jail, which is facing a $4.2 million shortfall. Each has gone to jail at least five times in the past 12 months, and in 2012 they accounted for 5,499 days in the facility.

Because of their mental health

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Pierce County Jail crisis demands legislative fix

Tacoma’s transfer of misdemeanants to Fife has put the Pierce County Jail in a budget crisis. (Staff file photo)

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.
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Stealing the good bad guys from the Pierce County Jail

As our news staff reported Wednesday, the Pierce County Jail – which is to say, the Pierce County government – is taking a big hit from Tacoma’s decision last December to pull its petty crooks out of the downtown slammer.

Tacoma was the jail’s biggest customer. We’re talking the loss of millions of dollars a year (the city paid $6 million in 2012). The financial crisis is forcing Sheriff Paul Pastor to lay off jail staff, shut down 160 beds and do something creative with the resulting bed shortage. He promised there’d be no Fall-of-Baghdad-style mass release of mad sociopaths.

Pastor, county Executive Pat McCarthy and Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald were in this morning to lay out the dismal facts.

“We don’t fault Tacoma,” McCarthy said, for sending its misdemeanants to Fife’s relatively cheap penal system and leaving its high-maintenance felons – whose incarceration the city doesn’t pay for – in the Pierce County Jail.

But McCarthy really wasn’t delighted with Tacoma. She proceeded to elaborate on the ill consequences of the city’s “shopping around” for jails and the way it let Fife “cherry-pick” the nicer, healthier, less dangerous small-timers.

This is something like the adverse selection that health insurers worry about – getting stuck with the sick, older people when the younger, healthy people decide they don’t want to subsidize all those heart attacks and strokes with their premium dollars. The City of Tacoma is a rational actor. It’s in a budget crisis of its own, and it’s not passing up a chance to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in criminal justice expenses.

The City of Fife’s creative entrepreneurialism should be noted. Its jail has a scant 36 beds, but it’s negotiated for jail space in cities from Des Moines to Sunnyside in Eastern Washington. It then markets these beds to its own customers, now including Tacoma and Lakewood.

Another rational actor. Somebody should be working on Wall Street, not 23rd Street East.
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Suffer delusions, go to jail.

The question, on page 1 of Tuesday’s paper: “Where to put mentally ill jail inmates?”

On Police Beat, page B2, the answer: in jail.

Once upon a time, a poor soul like this would have been committed to an actual hospital and gotten treatment.

Aug. 29: The milk was poisoned, the man said – so he stabbed it with a kitchen knife.

Officers responded to a report of a man with a knife at a grocery store in the 4000 block of South Tacoma Avenue. The report said the man was stabbing milk cartons and screaming.

The officer arrived and cautiously edged toward the dairy section. He saw a man crouched by Aisle 9, near a cooler. A broken jug of milk left a puddle nearby. Puddles of milk and the remnants of other containers marked a trail along the aisle.

Two other officers joined in. They took the man down and cuffed him. He didn’t resist, but he wailed about the poisoned milk. No one was listening to him, he said.
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A failed mental health system, a mother’s plea, a tragedy

This editorial will appear in Wednesday’s print edition.

Almost never have we devoted this space to a subject we covered just a day earlier.

But almost never have we run an op-ed like the one you’ll find on the opposite page, by Reno and Jennifer Sorensen. They are, respectively, the brother and mother of Laura K. Sorensen, the young woman accused of shooting three customers in a store near Wauna on Saturday.

They tell a story that ought to be mandatory reading for every lawmaker in Washington. Every lawmaker in the country, for that matter.

Our focus Tuesday was the folly of underfunding treatment for the severely mentally ill and imagining they’ll get by unsupervised, untreated or unhospitalized. Left to themselves, they inevitably wind up in some kind of trouble.

Many are preyed upon. Many wind up in jail after committing offenses they wouldn’t have committed had they gotten the care they needed.
Jail is no substitute for a functioning, accessible mental health care system – the kind of system that might help disturbed souls before they act on delusions, fear and anger. Jail is no place for someone whose fundamental problem is schizophrenia, paranoia or some other psychosis.

They don’t heal there. Many jails – including Pierce County’s – can’t afford and don’t have full-time psychiatrists. Jail staffs can’t require psychotic inmates to take medications. The atmosphere and sheer stress of incarceration work against recovery.
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Pierce County Jail makes a poor psychiatric hospital

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

Treating the mentally ill on the cheap can cost a fortune. The shocking overtime costs at Pierce County Jail are yet another example.

Those costs are expected to run $1.8 million over budget this year. Some of that may be a result of sloppy management – without an in depth analysis, there’s no way to tell.

But there’s no question that some of it is being driven, as Sheriff Paul Pastor maintains, by the high cost of dealing with inmates with serious psychiatric illnesses.

According to the Sheriff’s Department, which operates the jail, roughly 118 inmates with serious mental illnesses are being confined there at any given time. Some of them are housed in a section of the building that’s been turned into what amounts to a psychiatric wing. Others are held maximum security.

An additional 150 or more don’t suffer from acute illnesses – but are sick enough to require psychiatric medications. The jail’s budget for mental health treatment, coincidentally, is $1.8 million.

The Pierce County Jail, in other words, is not just a jail: It’s also a psychiatric hospital under a different name.

This phenomenon isn’t unique to Pierce County. It is common throughout the United States, and its roots stretch back to the 1960s. That’s when the country began “deinstitutionalizing” the severely mentally ill – moving them out of psychiatric hospitals that were sometimes grim and dehumanizing.
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