Wash. county jail officials hope new hiring incentives will attract more COs

Sign-on bonuses of $10,000 for new hires and $25,000 for deputies who join from other jails were OK'd


By Peter Talbot
The News Tribune

PIERCE COUNTY, Wash. — A shortage of corrections deputies at Pierce County Jail has left the facility in a staffing crisis that is forcing a limit on how many inmates can be housed there. County officials are hoping newly enacted hiring incentives will attract more recruits.

Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier last month signed a three-year collective bargaining agreement with the Corrections Bureau that raises hourly pay for new deputies to between $32.38 and $42.08. In a phone call with The News Tribune, Dammeier said he also approved sign-on bonuses of $10,000 for new hires and $25,000 for corrections deputies who join from other jails.

Dammeier said the wage increases — up from between $30.07 and $38.96 — make corrections deputies here the highest paid in the state. Retention bonuses of $10,000 paid over two years also were approved to help keep the deputies the jail already has.

"We want to make sure we're retaining our professional corrections deputies, and we want to encourage others to come," Dammeier said. "That's why hiring is absolutely essential right now. I'm very concerned that we've got to fill our vacancies, and if we don't, our jail may not be able to provide the service that our community needs."

Hourly wages for entry-level corrections officers are still higher in King County, which is dealing with its own jail staffing shortage. According to its job listings, officers can earn between $32.43 and $43.28. Sign-on bonuses of $7,500 to $15,000 also are being offered.

As a result of the staffing shortage in Pierce County, corrections deputies are putting in hundreds of hours of mandatory overtime, and it's keeping in place restrictions that have limited jail bookings to violent offenders and misdemeanor offenses where a jail booking is mandatory, such as DUI and certain domestic-violence cases.

Last month, the jail was down 95 corrections deputies in a facility budgeted for 262 employees, according to a Facebook post from the Sheriff's Department, which oversees the jail. Of those 95 positions, 41 were deputies out on military, medical or family leave, while the other positions were vacant. The department projected that by the end of the year, 22 more would retire or resign.

From January to Aug. 19, the jail used 5,060 hours of mandatory overtime, acting chief of corrections Steve Jones told Pierce County Council at an August meeting. The extra hours aren't costing more than the jail is already budgeted for because the high number of vacancies is offsetting that cost, but it's straining the resources the jail does have.

"The officers are getting wore out," Jones told the council. "Most of them are over 50 and having to work 16 hours a day."

Among those who left their jobs this year, most (9) retired, according to figures Jones presented. Five went to another agency, another five moved away, two changed careers and one left corrections for patrol work in the Sheriff's Department.

Pierce County's jail's two buildings in downtown Tacoma are budgeted to hold almost 1,300 inmates, and the population Wednesday, Oct. 26, was at 811. Jail protocols have limited bookings mainly to violent offenders since the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce the virus' spread, which led to steep declines in the jail's population.

Limiting bookings to violent offenders can be viewed as a step toward reducing mass incarceration. The United States has a larger portion of its population in jails and prisons than any other country in the world, according to Pew Research Center. It has also raised questions about whether booking restrictions have contributed to an increase in property crimes in Tacoma in Pierce County during the pandemic, including motor vehicle theft.

In a letter sent to local mayors and other Pierce County leaders Oct. 10, Dammeier wrote that an "unacceptably high number" of people arrested in Pierce County still weren't being booked. Beyond staffing issues, he pointed out that lengthy delays in getting inmates admitted to Western State Hospital for court-ordered competency restoration was keeping inmates at the jail who shouldn't be there.

Typically, inmates ordered to undergo competency restoration are to be admitted to Western State Hospital within 14 days of when the court order is signed. According to acting chief Jones, the lag time for admission is more like 92 days, or 38 if it's expedited.

Still, Dammeier said he's confident the increased pay and hiring incentives would be effective in getting people to join the Corrections Bureau. Sheriff's Department spokesperson Sgt. Darren Moss said Thursday that two corrections deputies had been hired in the last two months. He said they are in pre-course work that must be completed before they undergo about 18 weeks of training at the state's Criminal Justice Training Commission in Burien.

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