Politics & Government

Tacoma inmates may return to Pierce jail

Tacoma could once again house low-level criminal defendants downtown in the Pierce County Jail if city and council leaders give the nod later this month.

The deal comes nearly two and half years after Tacoma began sending its inmates to Fife instead of the county jail. At the time, the city estimated it would save about 30 percent of its $6 million annual jail bill by contracting with Fife, which acts as a broker for Tacoma’s inmates.

After the county and Tacoma parted ways, Pierce County closed 262 jail beds and laid off 16 corrections deputies to reduce costs.

Fife sends Tacoma’s inmates to several other jails around the state, including to Yakima and Wapato in Eastern Washington. Now Tacoma could cut out the middle man and hire its own staffer to manage the distribution of inmates among three jails.

The Tacoma City Council could vote on contracts next week with three area jails: Pierce County, a jail owned by the Nisqually Indian Tribe near Olympia, and the South Correctional Entity, or SCORE, in Des Moines.

“This started because the costs at the Pierce County Jail were escalating whenever a contract came up (for renewal),” Tacoma Mayor Marilyn Strickland said. “We are trying a more regional approach to this. … We ended in a good place.”

The county jail would hold most or all of Tacoma’s inmates prior to their sentencing — and for less than Tacoma was paying Pierce County prior to 2013. A city is responsible to pay jail costs for those charged with committing misdemeanor crimes within the city.

Under the proposed contract, Tacoma would pay Pierce County $75.80 per inmate per day, down from the $85-per-day fee the city paid in 2012.

Kevin Phelps, the deputy county executive, called it a “break-even rate.”

Gary Robinson, Pierce County budget and finance director, said Tacoma will pay the county only what it costs to add inmates to the jail. For instance, the jail will buy more food and uniforms to care for Tacoma’s inmates. Those extra costs are built into the rate Tacoma will pay.

Other costs, like the debt owed for the jail and the cost of salaries for jail administrators, which could normally be used to calculate a per-day jail rate, will remain the same whether Tacoma moves inmates in or not. Those costs are not included in the rate, Robinson said.

The daily rate covers basic medical care in the jail, but if an inmate needs urgent or outside medical attention, Tacoma must pay that cost.

The county jail also charges a fee to book inmates into the jail. That amount has dropped from $212 in the previous agreement to $50 in the current proposal.

If the five-year contract is approved by both the City Council and the County Council, it would take Pierce County a few months to hire the 14 jail deputies and sergeants required to accommodate more inmates.

“We are going to staff up, and as we staff up we are going to add (Tacoma’s) inmates,” Sheriff Paul Pastor said. “The inmates are much better served by using a centralized system in Tacoma.”

Tacoma will pay Pierce County $600,000 through the end of the year to cover overtime costs for jail deputies until the county can hire more staff. The money also will renovate a “pod” at the county jail where about 75 inmates would be housed.

Even with the $600,000 payment, the city expects to save $200,000 this year over what it would pay Fife, Assistant City Manager Mark Lauzier said Wednesday.

While the county jail hiring staff, the city could send some inmates to SCORE, which would charge $97 per day per prisoner.

Once city inmates are convicted and sentenced, Tacoma would send them to a jail owned by the Nisqually Indian Tribe near Olympia. Deputies there will also be responsible for transporting inmates between Tacoma and the Nisqually jail, as well as between Tacoma and SCORE. .

The county’s head public defender cheered the proposal, noting that inmates would have better access to their lawyers. Tacoma’s existing arrangement with Fife has drawn concern from local public defenders about communicating with their clients, who can have frequent court appearances before being convicted or released.

“It’s hard to have an attorney-client relationship when you can’t talk to your client,” said Michael Kawamura, director of the department of assigned counsel for Pierce County.

The new arrangement also would make it easier for family and friends to visit defendants in jail.

“If you have an indigent client who has family in this area and (the inmate is) housed in Yakima, it pretty much means nobody’s coming to see them on weekends,” Kawamura said.