Think of the ongoing jail talks among Tacoma, Fife and Pierce County as post-marriage adjustments to prenuptial agreements.
No one is getting divorced. No one faces a doomsday deadline to strike a bargain, though plenty of public money — as much as $6 million — sits on the table.
“There is no rush,” Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax said recently. “We are talking with both parties. I’d like to have us figure out where we’re going to go with each other. There’s no urgency, but I like to get things done.”
At stake is a fluid group of low-level inmates arrested by Tacoma police — roughly 144 a month. They’re misdemeanants charged with low-level crimes. They’re booked into Fife’s 36-bed city jail and ferried to other jails in Washington.
Fife’s jail brokerage and its cheaper rates prompted Tacoma to sever its longstanding contract with Pierce County in 2012, and send its low-level inmates to Fife.
The departure blew a $5 million hole in the county’s budget, ultimately leading to the closure of 252 county jail beds and layoffs of 16 county corrections deputies.
That added to perpetual budget woes at the county jail, which faces a deficit north of $3 million and has “one of the lowest levels of jail occupancy in any major county jail system in the United States,” according to a recent county study.
Another result: most of the county’s inmates (1,070 on average) are felons, apart from the misdemeanants arrested by sheriff’s deputies. That means a tougher mix of inmates, and corresponding levels of security. By law, the county must accept all arrestees charged with felonies, and bear the entire cost of incarcerating them.
The fiscal dilemma has prompted Pierce County to try a bit of wooing, in an effort to regain some of the lost low-level inmates and accompanying revenue by offering Tacoma more competitive jail rates. Those talks have been ongoing for months.
“We’ve had some good conversations,” County Executive Pat McCarthy said. “Our team is still working on the path forward. It’s about finding the price point. We’re still in negotiations, and we’re very happy.”
Like Broadnax, McCarthy said there is no urgency to close a deal.
“It’s a ways off,” she said.
County Sheriff Paul Pastor hopes to see a compromise, and eventually, a broader approach to jail usage.
“I’ve been proposing, for quite a while now, a regionalized jail approach within the county,” he said. “We don’t look at how we can put Fife out of business, or whoever out of business. We look at how we can combine assets. Everybody has to kind of contribute to the soup when we do that.”
For Fife, the third player in the talks, the stakes are a little different.
Tacoma’s inmates represent 85 percent of the small city’s jail brokerage business, City Manager Subir Mukerjee said. Fife is considering capital improvements to its jail, as well as hiring additional corrections officers — but it doesn’t want to make such moves without a long-term commitment from Tacoma.
“For us to make major investments, to provide that level of service, we need some certainty in that contract,” Mukerjee said.
Tacoma’s current contract with Fife, which sets booking fees and daily rates for inmates, runs through 2022. It includes a loophole — either party can pull out with 90 days notice.
Fife has no intention of pulling out, Mukerjee said. Neither does Tacoma, according to Broadnax. But all parties confirm the faint contours of a deal that could return some low-level inmates to Pierce County while addressing bumpy elements of the current arrangement.
The concept would separate low-level inmates into two groups: those arrested but awaiting trial and sentencing, and those who already have been sentenced. The presentence inmates would go to the county jail, while Fife would take charge of inmates after sentencing.
The idea addresses issues of convenience, while nodding toward Fife’s need for long-term certainty. The county jail is centrally located and connected to Pierce County courts. Inmates can move from jail to a courtroom in minutes, as opposed to the back-and-forth transport requirements for inmates in Fife.
“They (Tacoma) want to have some inmates at the county because they’re close to the courthouse for the pretrial,” Mukerjee said. “After the sentence, they want to kind of use Fife for the post-sentencing. I know that they’re discussing that with the county. I’m not privy to that.”
McCarthy, the county executive, said all parties want to make sure the system “operates as efficiently as possible for everyone involved.”
She added that the possible return of some Tacoma inmates isn’t the only option. The county also is talking with the state Department of Corrections about the prospect of accepting state inmates who have violated the terms of their community supervision.
Broadnax said Tacoma police, who have the street-level perspective, are most concerned about making sure the jail booking process is swift so they can return to their duties.
Before striking the deal with Fife, Tacoma police were frustrated by lengthy delays in booking at the county jail that sometimes kept them off the streets for hours. Recent county studies of jail operations try to address those concerns and streamline operations.
A different pressure point comes from defense attorneys representing Tacoma’s low-level inmates. One attorney, Geoffrey Cross, wrote city leaders in September, lamenting the arrangement with Fife and the difficulties it created for his clients.
“The Fife jail is a disgrace,” Cross wrote. “There is no proper visiting room and no privacy with clients. I had to talk to my client in a room with a group of people. This is not traditionally the way we handle defendants in America. They are to be afforded privacy and easy access to counsel.”
Cross also noted that Fife’s brokerage model, which might send an inmate on multiple trips to Yakima and back before trial and sentencing, makes it harder for inmates to connect with their families and other support services.
Fife’s jail operation endured administrative upheaval last year. Two corrections officers were terminated after investigations found they sexually harassed female inmates.
The city’s police chief, Brad Blackburn, resigned abruptly last summer after a dispute with the outgoing city manager, who Mukerjee replaced.
Broadnax said Fife’s administrative issues don’t worry him; but he acknowledged the concerns raised by Cross and defense attorneys.
“It’s really about access,” he said.
Nodding to the idea of convenience, he added that any revised jail arrangement still must make financial sense for the city. The most recent round of talks with Pierce County yielded an offer of rates he called “amenable.”
He hopes to see a decision in the first quarter of this year, he said.
“We are the county seat,” he said. “It is the county jail. If we can find a way to utilize their services that’s affordable, we would definitely want to take advantage.”