Pierce County Jail sends notice to suspend housing for most misdemeanants

The Pierce County Jail, suffering from spiraling funding challenges, is telling cities and towns countywide they must find alternatives to house inmates booked on misdemeanor charges.

This means the county is turning away the lower-security, higher-revenue inmates it most needs.

Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor said capacity problems at the jail aren’t due to a lack of space, but rather a lack of staff to supervise inmates.

Staff cuts that were made when the jail was under-capacity in the past few years led to a smaller number of corrections deputies to supervise the misdemeanants, Pastor said. Meanwhile, the felony population, which the county is required to take, has been growing.

“We’ve got a problem on our hands, and we’re working to address it,” Pastor said last week.

Thirteen jurisdictions received a formal notice last month to stop sending their misdemeanants to the county jail. Those cities and towns include Bonney Lake, Eatonville, Fife, Fircrest, Gig Harbor, Lakewood, Milton, Orting, Roy, Ruston, Steilacoom, Sumner and Tacoma.

At least one city has found a replacement facility to fill the void. Sumner will soon send some of its inmates to Des Moines’ South Correctional Entity, known as SCORE, instead of Pierce County Jail as it has done for nearly seven years.

But the change will result in longer transport times and a higher daily rate for services.

“We will notify you when our population is decreased to a threshold within our budgeted capacity and at that point resume housing your misdemeanant inmates,” the county’s letter states.

Pastor said he doesn’t know when the jail will start accepting municipalities’ inmates again.

He said he doesn’t want to turn them away, but he has no choice.

“I wish I didn’t have to send (the letter) out,” he said. “But I have to run a jail that is safe and supervised.”

His jail will now handle only impaired-driver and domestic-violence bookings for the unincorporated county area and for jurisdictions that don’t have access to jail services elsewhere, Pastor said.

The county is required by state law to book all felons and pay the cost of their incarceration. That’s one challenge in the jail’s budget problems dating back to 2013.

That year, 16 deputies were laid off to help fill a $5 million jail deficit after Tacoma and Lakewood started sending their misdemeanor bookings to jails that charge lower rates.

The shift virtually turned the Pierce County Jail into an all-felon facility.

The county has been working to get Tacoma’s business back from Fife. Pastor said negotiations with Tacoma are continuing, but he doesn’t want to focus exclusively on one city. He said partnering with all agencies to create a consolidated regional system is the best solution, once staffing is increased and funding is stabilized.

Although the timeline for allowing misdemeanants back at the county is unknown, Pastor said, “I would like to do it as soon as possible.”

Hiring more corrections staffers is key.

Deputies laid off last year were offered their positions again after funding improved, but only a handful accepted the jobs. The Pierce County Council approved hiring eight new corrections staffers for 2015, and the county is working to fill a total of 14 vacancies.

In the meantime, Sumner will send its misdemeanants to SCORE when space isn’t available at its other contracted facilities. Those include Puyallup, Fife, Enumclaw and Wapato.

SCORE is last on the list for housing the city’s inmates. Puyallup and Fife take priority, due to proximity and cost.

Sumner’s public safety committee recommended SCORE to the Sumner City Council as a replacement facility. Council members unanimously approved the new contract March 2.

Sumner started using Pierce County’s jail services in July 2008, according to the contract obtained by The News Tribune.

Police Chief Brad Moericke said the city paid the county a rate of $92 per inmate per day, plus a booking fee of $225 per inmate. SCORE doesn’t charge a booking fee, he said, but the daily rate is higher at $145 per inmate.

By comparison, Sumner pays a daily rate of $65 per inmate for services in Puyallup and Fife. Fife charges a booking fee of $20; Puyallup doesn’t charge one.

Moericke said it’s unclear if moving inmates to SCORE will save money or cost more overall, since several factors determine the cost of housing inmates. But he said the lower daily rate offered by Pierce County is preferred.

Sumner would likely use Pierce County Jail again if the capacity and budget issues are solved, Moericke said.