Overheard on a Tacoma police scanner channel, Oct. 25, 2013:
Officer: Can you call Fife before I drive all the way out there, and see if they’re taking females?
Dispatcher: The bad news is, they’re not.
Officer: OK, so I guess I’m going to … county?
These days, an arrest in Tacoma sometimes looks like a game of pinball. Under the terms of a new government contract, Tacoma police officers are sending people arrested for low-level crimes to the city jail in Fife. From there, the prisoners are ferried to locations around the state.
Those Tacoma inmates used to go to the Pierce County Jail. The city paid a fee to house them, and the money buttressed the county jail’s budget. Now that money — about $5 million a year — is gone, and the county is struggling with the aftershocks.
THE OTHER SIDE OF THE FENCE
Ed Campbell feels Pierce County’s pain, even if it boosts his bottom line.
He’s the corrections director for Yakima County, east of the Cascades in Washington wine country. He runs a 920-bed jail complex, upgraded and expanded in 2006.
Starting a little less than three years ago, faced with a crushing $14 million deficit at a jail with a $32 million budget, Campbell had to lay off 99 employees — almost 40 percent of a staff of 253.
“It’s the most difficult thing I’ve probably had to do in my 25 years in criminal justice,” he said.
The primary cause: A group of King County cities stopped sending low-level inmates to Yakima County, built a jail in Des Moines and started shipping them there for cheaper rates.
Looking west gives Campbell a sense of déjà vu. This year, the Pierce County Jail faced a sudden $5 million deficit in its $52.5 million budget.
The cause: The city of Tacoma stopped sending its low-level inmates to the county jail and shipped them to Fife instead, where rates were cheaper.
The result: 16 county corrections deputies laid off, 14 vacant positions eliminated, 252 jail beds closed.
Pierce County leaders still are searching for answers in the midst of a rapidly changing jail landscape, trying to manage a 1,000-bed jail constructed in 2003 with taxpayer money. Only 10 years old, the still-newish jail is half-empty.
“They’re in a tough place right now,” Campbell said. “I’ve been exactly where they’ve been.”
Three years after the budget crisis in Yakima, Campbell has hired back many of his laid-off employees, and reopened access to scores of jail beds he was forced to close. The jail hasn’t bounced all the way back — its current budget stands at $22 million — but the fiscal bleeding has stopped.
Oddly enough, Campbell has Pierce County to thank for his fiscal good fortune. Some of the jail beds he’s reopened — 53 of them on one day last week — are filled with inmates from Tacoma, ferried from Fife.
The deficit driver in both counties was the same: cities shifting low-level inmates out of county lockups to reduce costs. Campbell eventually solved his budget problem by lowering jail rates for contract customers. Fife just happens to be one of them.
Pierce County isn’t alone. The jail business in Washington sometimes resembles a dog chasing its tail. State and local governments have a surplus of unused jail beds — yet they’re building or proposing to build more of them.
“In the marketplace, so to speak, there is a glut of beds,” said Andrew Tedesco, a citizen member of the Pierce County Council’s Performance Audit Committee.
- In the last three years, the state Department of Corrections has closed three prisons, including McNeil Island Corrections Center. Now state corrections leaders want to open a new prison in Thurston County.
- Thurston County still hasn’t opened its $43.5 million Accountability and Restoration Center, a 420-bed jail constructed in 2011, intended to ease overcrowding. Technology problems and delays in hiring have hampered the project.
- In 2011, a consortium of seven King County cities built a $60 million jail in Des Moines designed for low-level inmates. The South Correctional Entity (SCORE) has 802 beds, and currently uses about 475 of them.
- The emergence of SCORE and the departure of King County inmates forced Yakima County to close a 288-bed jail built for $33 million in 2007. That jail, only 6 years old, remains closed.
- The Nisqually Tribe in Thurston County operates a 90-bed jail and accepts contract inmates from neighboring cities. The tribe intends to build a 288-bed jail with a $20 million federal grant, but construction is not complete.
In the government-budgeting world, jails are a headache: a fluid, unavoidable expense, a public obligation, a political hot potato, and a gigantic share of the public money pie, no matter who pays. Each layer of government pays a portion of the freight, and every agency saddled with the obligation tries to minimize its direct cost.
The recent jail-building boom centers on misdemeanants: people arrested for petty crimes, sent to jail for a few days or weeks. Misdemeanants are a key population; they represent one of the only ways that county jails can make extra money.
The state covers the cost of prison inmates: those convicted of felonies, sentenced to more than a year in prison. Counties shoulder the next level — those charged with or convicted of felonies, serving a year or less.
From a budgeting standpoint, counties in Washington are stuck: By law, they must take all felons and pay 100 percent of the freight.
Pierce County Executive Pat McCarthy thinks it might be time to change that law
“We have a model to me that is patently unfair,” she said in a recent interview. “We’ve got an inherently unfair system.”
Misdemeanants arrested in cities are a different matter. Counties can charge fees to house them, effectively subsidizing the cost of housing felons. Generally, misdemeanants also are cheaper to house, requiring lower levels of security, though there are exceptions — inmates don’t line up in neat rows.
“Today’s felon could be tomorrow’s misdemeanant,” Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said.
Until recently, counties largely controlled the misdemeanant market. That has changed with the emergence of SCORE and Fife’s jail brokerage. Cities have discovered or created options for cheaper rates.
The result: a race to the bottom, pitting counties against cities for what some observers call “the cream,” meaning the revenue from cheap inmates. The moving money has sent shock waves through county budgets, and Pierce is no exception.
“It’s a very disconcerting thing about jail services — this kind of shopping around, best deal,” McCarthy said. “You get into this bidding war. And I just think that’s wrong.”
Candice Bock, a government relations advocate for the Association of Washington Cities, doesn’t see a war, or even a trend — just cities trying to save money.
“I don’t think it’s indicative of cities deciding to build new facilities that compete with counties,” she said. “It’s just an overall cost savings.”
What to do? Pastor, faced with continuing questions about overall costs at the jail, told Pierce County Council members Wednesday that change is necessary.
“We need to look at a different way to do the jail,” he said. “We need to design our system around the terrain.”
Pastor has spoken of a more cooperative system, perhaps allowing cities to own a share of jail space rather than charging for individual beds — but such an arrangement would take time and negotiation.
County Council Chairwoman Joyce McDonald wants to control current jail costs first.
“If we look at contracting in the future, it’s not just a matter of recouping our costs,” McDonald said in a recent council meeting. “There has to be a cost-plus aspect — otherwise there’s no point. All we’re doing is just maintaining a jail to be in the jail business.”
State lawmakers could provide another possible answer. During the last legislative session, they encouraged state corrections leaders to pursue contracts with county jails to house up to 300 state inmates. To date, no contracts have been awarded, but the proposal still is under consideration.
McCarthy would like to see other changes in state law, such as allowing counties to gain some revenue from housing felons. She also wonders whether the state could require cities to use county jails as a first option for low-level inmates.
Another potential solution comes from a jail-rate performance audit submitted to the County Council on Oct. 18. The audit examined jail expenses and rates in Pierce County as well as other jurisdictions.
While not recommending one approach over another, the audit found Pierce County could gain economies of scale by housing contract inmates from cities — as long as the money coming in exceeds the overall cost of housing inmates.
Consultant Bob Thomas, who led the rate study, described several ways the county could meet that goal. Selling fixed numbers of beds (rather than a single-bed rate) was one of them. Lowering daily rates was another. Thomas also suggested Pierce County could sell its full menu of services more effectively (including medical and mental health screening, and sheer convenience).
“Your rate wouldn’t have to match the other jurisdictions, but it would have to be set in a way that recognizes the advantages that Pierce does have,” he said. “And it could be a rate that would be higher than some of the others just because of some of the unique circumstances that Pierce has.”
In Yakima County, Ed Campbell has taken some of those steps already. New jail contracts sell beds by the batch rather than the head, and the county has lowered its overall rate.
The inmates from Tacoma provide a direct example. Tacoma pays Fife $65 per day for each inmate, plus a $20 booking fee. Fife sends some of those inmates to Yakima, and pays $52.75 a day to house them, with no booking fee (because booking has already taken place). Thus, for each Tacoma inmate, Fife gains $12.25 in profit per day. Yakima picks up the cost of transporting inmates. Fife’s contracts with other jails show similar profit margins.
Campbell faced the same question now plaguing Pierce County leaders: Is it better to insist on full-cost recovery for contract inmates, or offer more competitive prices for low-level inmates to partially subsidize the mandatory obligation of housing felons?
Hamstrung by circumstance, Campbell chose the latter. He invokes the business example of Southwest Airlines, a company with a long history of profit in a business known for losses.
“It’s better to sell the 20 percent empty seats for half price and still fly the airplane full than to leave the seats empty because you want to sell all of them at 100 percent of the rate,” he said.
Pierce County’s jail-rate study reached similar conclusions. While County Council members aren’t ready to say they have the answer, their comments after seeing the study suggested a sense of optimism.
“It’s not as bad as it looks, I think,” said Councilman Dan Roach. “I think there are some areas where we can become more competitive.”