Business of jailing helps Fife, hurts others

Staff writersJune 1, 2013 

To understand the math behind the ongoing budget crisis facing the Pierce County Jail, start with the county’s two largest cities: Tacoma and Lakewood. Then picture an interloper: the city of Fife, hanging around like a predator at the edge of the herd.

Imagine a flow of offenders arrested by the bigger cities’ police departments pouring into the county jail. Then take a big chunk of that group — low-level arrestees charged with misdemeanors — and imagine them going somewhere else.

That’s what’s happened over the last four years, first in Lakewood and more recently in Tacoma. It’s the chief reason Sheriff Paul Pastor announced last week that the county jail will shed 30 jobs and close two 84-bed units to make up a projected $4.2 million shortfall.

Before 2009, Lakewood sent its arrestees to the county jail and the Wapato City Jail in Central Washington. Since then, it has inked deals with Fife, Puyallup and most recently, the Nisqually Indian Tribe. Each contract provides cheaper jail beds to move low-level arrestees — misdemeanants — away from the costlier county jail.

In December, Tacoma struck a similar deal with Fife and started sending many low-level arrestees through the smaller city to the east.

The effect demonstrates a law of budgetary physics: For every action, an opposite reaction. While Tacoma and Lakewood save money, Pierce County loses it.

The county jail incurs higher costs than smaller jails because it must accept felons and mentally ill inmates, who require higher levels of security and treatment. In effect, low-level arrestees subsidize those higher-level inmates.

Into this mix, add a little entrepreneurship in Fife. The city’s jail is small — only 36 beds — but its footprint is far larger. Backed by a series of recently signed contracts, Fife has created a new regional identity as a jail broker.

The city sends inmates to jails in Wapato, Yakima and Sunnyside, as well as the South Correctional Entity (SCORE) jail in Des Moines, a facility designed for low-level inmates that opened in 2011.

The recent addition of low-level arrestees from Tacoma supercharged Fife’s brokerage. As of Wednesday, Fife’s jail listed 176 inmates scattered across the state, with 155 from Tacoma alone.

“We had an opportunity with Tacoma,” Fife City Manager Dave Zabell said. “They approached us — the rest is history.”

Fife’s effort began last year, when the city faced a budget deficit at its own jail, Zabell said. Historically, the city had taken inmates arrested by Federal Way police, but the suburban King County city pulled out and started sending its inmates to the SCORE jail.

That led to a small crisis — suddenly Fife’s jail was running at a significant deficit.

“We really started treating our jail as a business,” Zabell said. “We’re trying to expand our resources we have available to us. We are, I guess in some ways, a broker of sorts — I think this is pretty unique to Fife.”

Whether the move will translate to more revenue for Fife is still unclear. The broker model is only a few months old, but Zabell said the city has hired new employees to keep up with the sudden increase in the jail population.

“This is new,” he said. “We’re gonna have to fine-tune. We’ll have a better sense a month or so from now. It’s premature to say this solves the problem, but I think it’s safe to say our red ink is not nearly what it was if the city had not been proactive.”

Yet Fife’s gain is Pierce County’s loss, and Zabell sees it.

“I feel sorry for those guys,” he said.

Lakewood Assistant Police Chief Mike Zaro sees it, too. Weighed down by higher costs and higher rates, the county jail has a hard time competing when cash-strapped cities can find better deals with smaller, cheaper jails.

Pierce County charges Lakewood and other cities a $225 booking fee for each inmate, plus $92 a day to hold them. Fife’s typical charges: $20 for booking, and $65 per day per inmate.

The per-day charges for Wapato and Nisqually: $50 and $65. Nisqually charges a $20 booking fee. Wapato doesn’t charge one at all.

As Lakewood City Councilman Mike Brandstetter put it during a briefing last month, jail services are a “contracted commodity that you can competitively shop, and it’s good that we would go and do that.”

Added Zaro: “It’s supply and demand. It’s just difficult. … If the service is essentially the same and meets our needs, why wouldn’t we go with the lower cost and save the taxpayers money?”

In 2008, Lakewood police booked 2,524 offenders into the county jail. Last year, that number dropped to 1,804 — a 28.5 percent reduction. This year, the numbers continue to drop.

The loss of low-level offenders from Tacoma represents a far bigger hit, turning the county’s headache into a fiscal migraine.

Compared with Lakewood, Tacoma booked more than twice as many offenders into the county jail last year. As of Wednesday, Tacoma bookings at the county jail had dropped by one-third compared with last year — a budget-buster at one end, a savings at the other.

While Lakewood’s payments to the county jail have dropped, they remain significant. The city paid Pierce County $734,484 for jail services last year — more than twice what it paid Fife, Puyallup and Wapato combined for the year, according to city budget numbers. (The Nisqually Jail wasn’t included because Lakewood started using it in December.)

“When you’re talking about $225 for a booking fee, that adds up quickly,” Zaro said.

Tacoma and Lakewood use the smaller jails to book and hold low-level offenders and house them while they serve out their sentences or wait for bail.

The county jail remains the mandatory destination for felons, offenders who have “holds” from multiple agencies, and mentally ill individuals. That group requires higher security and, in some cases, more expensive care.

Lakewood’s move to Nisqually reflects continuing efforts to cut costs, but it’s also a matter of convenience. While Lakewood has a long-standing relationship with the Wapato Jail, it’s not ideal; it’s far away, has 56 total beds and has a small staff. Lakewood recently turned to Puyallup, but found inmates frequently were turned away due to lack of beds.

Zaro said officials are pleased with the Nisqually arrangement; beds have been available, and the service has been outstanding.

The tribe has run its 90-bed jail for the last decade but will open a 288-bed center early next year. Plans call for a future expansion of up to 576 beds, but no timeline has been set, Nisqually Tribal Police Chief Joe Kautz said.

The Nisqually Jail provides beds to 12 communities and tribal agencies, but Kautz insisted that the tribe isn’t building the jail to make money.

Rather, he said, the tribe has outgrown its current jail and hopes to unify its law enforcement and criminal justice services. The jail will be in a public safety complex; the tribe wants to expand its police station and courthouse and build a fire station.

“We are looking and caring for our own needs,” he said.

Kautz said the tribe has received no calls from cities or other agencies interested in beds in the expanded jail. That doesn’t mean he wouldn’t take them.

“Whoever calls, we would listen to them,” he said.

As for Fife, Zabell, the city manager, said City Council members will hear a presentation June 18 that takes a first fiscal look at the city’s venture as a jail broker.

“We’ll see how that ramp-up looks,” he said. “We don’t even know if we’re right-sized yet.”

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