Returning Tacoma’s small-time criminals and suspects to the Pierce County jail would best serve the public interest

In late 2012, the City of Tacoma made a logical, cost-conscious decision to send its petty criminals and suspects to Fife instead of the Pierce County jail in Tacoma. This year, we hope the cost-conscious logic points back to Pierce County.

Big empty dorms in Tacoma’s $59 million medium-security jail testify to the blunder county leaders made in 2012 when they tried to drive too hard a bargain with the city, lost its business and forfeited millions of dollars in fees.

Tacoma had been paying to put its small-time criminals and suspects in county custody for decades. The local lodgings were a short drive for cops escorting offenders; in theory, they could get a suspect booked then get back quickly to their other duties.

The jail seemed as much Tacoma’s as the county’s. City officials had championed construction of the new medium-security building, which opened in 2003. Tacoma citizens were (and still are) helping pay off the bonds that built it.

It was apparently hard to imagine that the City of Tacoma might look elsewhere for low-rent beds. Yet the city had plenty of budget troubles of its own, and long booking times had eroded the Tacoma jail’s convenience. In late 2012, with the county playing hard ball on prices, it went for Fife’s cheaper jail services.

County officials have clearly learned their lesson. Executive Pat McCarthy is now offering the city a far better bargain: For four years, the price of beds will stay at roughly $80 per prisoner per night rather than the $85 offered in 2012. Booking fees will drop from $225 to $50. The Sheriff’s Department is already pushing to get prisoners booked within a half hour. When inmates must be moved, the city will be charged by the trip, not by the individual.

Tacoma City Manager T.C. Broadnax and the City Council can’t be expected to squander their operating money for the sake of filling up the jail and relieving financial pressure on the county. But if the county’s new offer is reasonably close to the competition, they ought to grab it.

Fife officials, bless their hearts, aren’t offering jail space for the good of the region. They’ve come up with what amounts to an ingenious business scheme: Secure low-cost beds in places like Yakima and Sunnyside, then broker them to South Sound jurisdictions seeking to bring their criminal justice costs down.

Give Fife credit for entrepreneurship. But siphoning off misdemeanants from Tacoma and Lakewood has saddled Pierce County taxpayers with a newish jail that has too many empty beds and too little revenue to support its fixed overhead costs. As a result, Pierce County’s government has been diverting millions of dollars to the jail that could otherwise be spent providing vital public services.

That hurts Tacomans as well as those who live elsewhere in the county. All things being equal – or close to equal – Tacoma’s crooks would best be housed in the hometown jail.