Pierce County might not need new jail, study shows

Pierce County won’t need to build a new jail anytime soon if the current one is managed more efficiently, according to a task force of criminal justice officials, local lawmakers and citizens.

The Criminal Justice Task Force, convened earlier this year by the Pierce County Council, made a handful of recommendations to improve management and programs at the jail, which is overcrowded.

Given that the county has no money for a new facility, the task force said officials should make decisions and spend money based on which offenders need to be jailed, which ones can be safely released and how to reduce recidivism.

Specifically, the task force suggested:

• Improving decision-making to better manage who is held jail before their trials.

• Developing ways to steer chronic, low-level offenders into programs that will help them and keep them out of jail.

• Establishing programs to help offenders move from jail back into the community.

• Developing a tracking tool to gauge the performance of the justice system. The so-called “dashboard” would allow officials to document how the jail population is being managed.

• Speeding up the processing of Superior Court criminal cases.

“Pierce County should aggressively pursue every viable means of limiting the need for additional jail bed space before any decision is made to plan for new construction of additional jail capacity or to staff currently unoccupied jail beds,” the task force states in its report last month to the County Council.

Three committees will start working on the recommendations later this month, and have been asked to deliver their final reports Sept. 1, 2009.

County officials welcomed the initial report, and said they looked forward to seeing what the committees devise.

“If we do all the right things … we are still not going to need another jail,” said County Councilman Dick Muri, who co-chairs the task force.

Rob Masko, chief of corrections at the jail, said the task force has provided a good opportunity to look at how the facility manages prisoners.

“It’s always a good idea to look at the way you are doing business periodically,” he said.

Jail overcrowding has been a problem in Pierce County for years. The county opened a 1,008-bed, $59.2 million jail in 2003, but hasn’t had the money to fully staff it and the older jail. If fully opened, the two could hold 1,787 prisoners.

The jail currently is funded to house 1,465 inmates.

The county is under a 1995 federal court order to avoid jail overcrowding. To manage the population, corrections officials release non-violent offenders early from their jail sentences and book-and-release men and women arrested on non-violent crimes.

Last year, an uptick in the jail population forced the county to nearly triple the number of inmates being released before serving their sentences or before even reaching a cell. There was also talk of a new jail needing to be built.

Concerns were raised in the community about the jail management policies.

The County Council established the Criminal Justice Task Force in March. The 18-member group met 10 times and hired consultant Teri K. Martin to help with its work.

To date, Martin has been paid $18,000, said Matt Temmel, the county’s performance audit coordinator. Martin will continue to work with the county and the subcommittees.




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