Sunday, June 28, 2015

Jail Woes

By far the largest part of any county budget is the law and justice system. Building county jails is an expensive undertaking and recent history in Washington State is full of cautionary tales. It is not just that a jail structure is expensive. Running the jail costs a lot of money.

Whatcom County is having a bit of a jail crisis and is in need of a new jail facility. The planning for this facility has been proceeding with some assumptions that appear to be unraveling and hence the crisis has gotten worse.  And due to the fact that all cities in Whatcom County have been contracting with the County for jail services that crisis now involves the cities as well as the Lummi Nation.

What follows is a bit of out loud thinking and notes on jail woes elsewhere to clarify my own thinking on this problem.

Thurston County

Thurston County built a jail that has sat empty for over four years because they did not have the funding to operate the jail (new-thurston-county-jail-still-empty-after-five-years). Part of Thurston County's troubles was timing; the jail was completed just as the economy plummeted and Thurston County was impacted fairly badly. A 2012 report (Thurston-Co-FINAL-REPORT-2-14-2012_1.pdf) made numerous recommendations to implement to reduce operating costs to $16 million a year but working through those recommendations and costs has proven difficult between the elected sheriff and the county commissioners as well as the labor union for corrections officers. A new union agreement in 2014 was a step in solving the problem. An agreement passed in January 2015 to resolve the other differences between the sheriff and the commissioners with optimism expressed that the new jail would be open in 2015, but at this time the jail is still not open. 

The Thurston Jail situation only involves Thurston County government. Local cities have their own jails or contract beds in non Thurston County facilities. For example Olympia has its own jail. One of the recommendations in the Thurston report linked above was for the county not to take on providing beds for cities. Given the difficulty of assumptions providing beds for misdemeanor offenders, the joint operation of a jail between the cities and county in Thurston caused the split well before the new jail was built.

Mason County and Shelton

Cities have their own challenges. It is tempting to assume that a county jail would also serve the local cities, but that formula does not match Thurston County as noted above. Cross jurisdictional issues do present problems and hence separation has been the choice of the cities in Thurston County. Nearby Shelton in Mason County has been sending city inmates to the Mason County jail as well as all the way to Forks. But staff funding in the Mason County jail combined with a partial closure of the Forks jail for a remodel precluded those solutions and caused Shelton to look elsewhere. Shelton recently entered into an agreement with the new Niscqually jail at $65/day per inmate and $20 booking fee (

The Mason County challenge has been significantly impacted by disparity in pay for deputies between Mason County and neighboring counties and cities. Officer starting pay in Mason County is $3,200/month versus $4,199/month in adjoining Thurston County (staffing-challenges-jail-costs-create-funding-crisis-for-sheriffs-office).

Pierce County

Pierce County has been having ongoing jail woes with their new jail (pierce-county-jail-deficit). For  a time a section of the jail was closed and now they are running into overtime pay problems with a section of the jail being periodically opened and then closed. Furthermore, the City of Tacoma stopped using the County jail as for its misdemeanants and instead has been sending prisoners to adjoining Fife because Fife is much less expensive. Pat McCarthy, the County Executive, points out that "The burden of all felons falls on the shoulders of county government, there’s no sharing costs. The only paying customers so to speak, are those convicted of misdemeanors". Hence, the loss of Tacoma as a "paying customers" as well as Fife and other cities means the County jail has been over built and is not getting the anticipated revenue from when the jail expansion began. Fife was charging $75/day. But with the Yakima County jail charging $55/day, even Fife has been sending prisoners to Yakima. And recall above Niscqually not far from Tacoma is charging $65/day.

Yakima County

Yakima County has also had trouble (yakima-to-close-county-jail-to-help-close-93-million-budget-gap) (washington-county-jail-remains-closed-after-voters-reject-tax-hike) ( They built a new jail in 2002 in addition to the existing 950 bed facility they already had, but a significant part of the funding scheme was to house prisoners from elsewhere in the State as a means to transition to a larger newer jail. That approach did not pan out as initial jail users, particularly from King County found other jails that were less expensive, or reduced incarceration rates or built new jails themselves. The jail was closed in 2010.  The Yakima County jail however, has reopened with some newer contracts such as Tacoma and Fife described above as well as Everett and Snohomish Everett_Yakima_Jail_agreement and  hopes that the State will also use the facility. However, the new facility is substantially smaller than originally planned. The Yakima rates also might be low simply to partially defray the bond payments.

The City of Yakima built its own jail in 1996 and houses 70 prisoners and has interlocal agreements with other cities in the area. Wapato also has a jail with a 73 inmate jail and municipal court. Hence, Yakima County has not had the funding stream from its local cities from even before the new jail was built. Those cities decided to go with their own systems for managing misdemeanor offenses with their cities.

Jerome, Arizona

Ok not in Washington, but Jerome's jail has a landslide issue:

1 comment:

Eliseo Weinstein said...

The prison continues to sicken me. Companies basically make billions of dollars by locking people up, a lot of people who do not deserve to be in jail in the first place. Seems like the state of Washington, along with the other 49, need to seriously take a look at why jails REALLY exist!