Pierce County leaders grappled Monday with how to deal with the recent spike in mentally ill inmates in the county jail.
The issue emerged last month after the Pierce County Council learned that corrections officers were racking up overtime in part to oversee these inmates. The county estimates overtime will be $1.8 million over budget by the end of the year, squeezing its ability to put deputies on the road. Another reason for the overtime is staff shortages due to corrections deputies on disability and military leave.
The revelation led County Councilman Dan Roach, chairman of the council’s public safety committee, to hold a hearing to identify possible solutions.
Sheriff’s Department officials said the influx of mentally ill inmates is forcing officers to place violent offenders in less-secure areas of the jail and is hindering their ability to book offenders. Twice since May, jail officials have informed local law enforcement agencies to cite and release or update the mugshots, fingerprints and addresses of people suspected of nonviolent misdemeanors instead of bringing them in for booking, said Judy Snow, the jail’s mental health manager.
The jail is renovating an area previously used by inmates dressing for court appearances into 12 cells to house inmates who have serious mental illness or are suicidal. The project, at a cost of more than $300,000, was not anticipated when the county wrote its current budget.
The jail also is holding mentally ill inmates longer due to delays in getting Western State Hospital evaluations to determine if they are competent to stand trial. Eighteen of the 27 inmates in line for these evaluations have waited more than 30 days, Snow said.
She told the committee that approximately five years ago the wait time was a week, but that has lengthened due to state budget cuts and a shortage of evaluators. The number of evaluations of Pierce County Jail inmates increased to 372 last year from 235 two years ago, county data show.
Sheriff Paul Pastor said Pierce County is not unique, as jails in neighboring counties and around the nation also are struggling with an increase in mentally ill inmates.
“It is a drain on our budget,” he said. “I think it’s a drain on safety in the community.”
Jails aren’t alone. Judy Murphy, who manages emergency medical services for Central Pierce Fire & Rescue, said it has seen a 30 percent increase in service calls involving mentally ill patients in the past three to five years. Some of them have been violent, she said, and the district has instructed its responders never to put themselves at risk. They take violent patients to the emergency room because there’s nowhere else to take them.
“We have struggled with what to do with them,” she said.
County officials cite shrinking state services and a lack of support in the community to keep mentally ill people stable and out of crisis.
“If we had enough beds and enough services out in the community, we wouldn’t be having the problems we’re having now,” Undersheriff Eileen Bisson said.
Cheri Dolezal, executive director of OptumHealth Pierce Regional Support Network, said her organization is pledging more investment and planning to address the problem, but it needs assistance from other social services and public agencies. The network contracts with the county to help mentally ill inmates connect with resources to keep them from returning to jail.
Councilmen Stan Flemming and Dick Muri placed the blame on the state for its budget cuts.
Muri was open to reviving discussion about finishing a suspended project to add more than 70 beds to the jail. The estimated cost was $2 million to $3 million. But Flemming said that adding more beds isn’t a solution because a jail isn’t intended to be a mental health facility.
“We’re reaping what the state has sown,” Flemming said, adding that state lawmakers need to be pressed to take email@example.com