One county jail, many problems, few answers

Tacoma residents, city and county elected officials, and representatives of the area’s criminal justice system last night filled a meeting room on the Evergreen State College’s Hilltop neighborhood campus to discuss ongoing concerns related to funding and overcrowding at the Pierce County Jail, and a court system overworked and bogged down by a massive backlog of cases.
The forum, co-sponsored by the New Tacoma Neighborhood Council, Central Neighborhood Council, and the Hilltop Action Coalition, convened a panel of officials, including Pierce County Prosecutor Gerry Horne, Tacoma Municipal Presiding Judge David Ladenburg, Pierce County Superior Court Presiding Judge Tom Larkin, Tacoma Police Chief Don Ramsdell, and Pierce County Sheriff Paul Pastor, to field questions and listen to comments from community members.
The issue is a concern to Tacoma residents because of the number of people arrested and released after serving no time due to limited jail space and funding. According to statistics provided by organizers, last year 3,990 people arrested were released early or served no jail time due to overcrowding. That figure nearly tripled from 1,360 in 2006. As of Dec. 31, the inmate population totalled 1,363.
Tacomans who live near the jail are concerned over the number of people arrested in other parts of Pierce County and released from jail and into Tacoma. In 2007, 2,187 people arrested outside of Tacoma were released from jail and into the city.
Though officials in the criminal justice system half-joked early in the evening that they were prepared to face the community “firing line,” many of the panelists were equally as frustrated as attendees.
“As we look ahead over the next 10 years, we are going to have to look at alternatives to incarceration,” said Sheriff Pastor. “I’m not saying that because I’m a nice, touchy-feely guy. I don’t know the words to ‘Kumbaya,’ and I’m not going to learn them.”
Two big concerns were expressed by residents who queued up to comment — a lack of services for inmates with mental health issues; and where the county planned to build the next jail.
City Hall watchdog Phyllis Barrett asked, “Why don’t we have a mental health court in Pierce County like they do in Thurston County?”
“We don’t have the money for it,” said Judge Larkin, who said he agreed completely with the concern. Though he noted that there are courts at Puget Sound Behavioral Health and Western State Hospital, he added, “We don’t have courts for mental health problems outside those institutions. These are tough budget times.”
The other issue — a new jail — prompted a response from Sheriff Pastor: “Eventually we will need more jail space. I have no idea where it will be put.”
He added that the issue of releasing inmates early for lack of housing was tied more to funding than space. The jail could hold 1,465 inmates, but some beds are empty due to a lack of funding.
“There are empty beds in the jail,” he added. “We’re asking for more money.”