COMPETITION and the profit motive is the foundation of the American economy, but should it drive the delivery of sensitive government services such as adult detention? For decades, detention policy was pretty simple: Counties operated jails, felons went to county jails, and cities contracted with counties to house their misdemeanants. Some cities operated very small jails but, for the most part, counties provided jail services.
Now, however, local governments have entered a new era where city, county and tribal governments are all aggressively competing with each other for jail contracts. Taxpayers, and especially inmates, are suffering due to this big-box, race-to-the-bottom approach to jails.
Recently, inmates who in the past would have gone to one of King County’s two adult jails have ended up in the Fife Jail, the Kirkland Jail, the Snohomish County Jail, the Yakima County Jail, and, now, the South Correctional Entity jail (SCORE), in Des Moines. SCORE is, in many ways, the prime example of what is wrong with this new era of jail competition.
The cities of Auburn, Federal Way, Des Moines, SeaTac, Burien, Tukwila and Renton contracted together to create SCORE and build a $56 million, 800-bed jail after King County Executive Ron Sims announced that King County would stop accepting city misdemeanants — a decision reversed by Sims’ successors.
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When it opened in September 2011, the South Correctional Entity promised the voters of Southwest King County that its new jail would house only misdemeanants from the seven SCORE cities. It was supposed to provide an economically viable alternative to staying in the King County system or contracting with another jail.
Unfortunately, the entity’s projections were wrong. Once the jail opened, there weren’t enough misdemeanants from SCORE cities to fill enough beds to make the jail viable. SCORE, therefore, got into the contracting business. Today, SCORE appears to take inmates from anywhere, including violent felons who have violated the terms of their parole from state prisons.
The taxpayers of Southwest King County, therefore, are paying taxes to SCORE to house inmates from around the state, and still paying taxes to King County for its jail system.
Worse, SCORE was not built or staffed to house the high-risk inmates and psychiatric inmates now in that jail. Employees have said in a KIRO 7 news report and to the King County Corrections Guild that there is inadequate medical care on site, inmates are often held for days in the pre-booking area before being arraigned and are often kept in waist chains for days at a time.
SCORE has only been open for two years, and problems are already apparent. Felons and psychiatric inmates are being held in a facility designed for low-risk offenders, according to another KIRO 7 news report.
A complaint has been filed to the city of Des Moines against SCORE for violating the terms of its land-use permit by accepting inmates from outside the SCORE area. A plaintiff has filed a civil-rights lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington against SCORE, claiming he was forced to sleep on the floor for 51 days, and was given the wrong prescription medications.
The problems at SCORE are a direct result of this new culture of jail-contracting competition. The SCORE cities are desperate to make the payments on the jail they have built, so they fight for contracts, and keep operating costs as low as possible.
That’s good business, but is it good government? It’s time for the state to step in and bring some order back to the system of adult detention. Counties should provide regional criminal-justice services. If they are going to allow contracting, small governments should operate their jails using the same standards as counties.
Taxpayers should not be forced to pay for multiple jails, and inmates should not suffer in substandard jails because some government undercut the competition and won a contract.
Corrections Officer Randy Weaver is president of the King County Corrections Guild.