King County has long struggled with paying mandatory overtime to jail corrections officers in the absence of proper staffing. According to a 2016 database of King County employees' salaries obtained by the Tacoma News Tribune, some corrections officers nearly doubled their annual salary because of overtime alone. (According to 2018 data, corrections officers also made up 40 percent of the county program to provide taxi rides in the event of unexpected overtime or personal emergencies.)
On Tuesday, during a sometimes frustrating public meeting, Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) officials briefed the county that it's even struggling to hire 15 full-time employees that the county approved in the 2017-2018 budget.
So what gives?
Lots of reasons, according to county staff, but among them: competition with Amazon, Seattle police, and the King County Sheriff's Office. According to Jennifer Albright, program manager for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, Amazon's hiring process is likely less strict than King County's. King County jails' wait times in steps in the hiring process also don't help; apparently, everything is done with paper hard copies of hiring files. And then there's the trouble in finding quality candidates who want to do the job in the first place.
But it may be even more enlightening to look at what's driving up staffing needs. One of the root causes of corrections officer overtime, according to the most recent King County DAJD report, is the number of inmates who are transferred to the hospital and were guarded there. According to the county, the jail health system lacks 24/7 provider care, and can't treat emergency "acute" problems.
Another major issue in staffing is the growing jail population. Over the last five years, the average daily population in King County jails has steadily increased by more than 300 inmates. (See chart below.)
There are lots of potential drivers to why the jails are filling up with more people, according to the county, but one way to reduce the jail population seems straightforward. According to the county jails, "a decision to de-emphasize a certain class of crime, such as property crime, not to charge a certain group of crimes, or a decision by the court not to hold low level offenders could decrease the pressure on the adult population over a long period of time."
Last month, some locals and the Seattle Police Officers Guild freaked out that King County prosecutors were dropping 1,500 low-level misdemeanor charges.
"Imagine being a cop who works their was [sic] off to actually combat the rampant property crime we have here, only to see all of your cases get dumped," a Reddit poster who identified himself as a cop and leaked the news, wrote. "Maybe Dow Constantine and Dan Satterberg could have use some of that $2.25 Million they gave to illegal immigrant defense funds to pay for a few more prosecutors..."
But Tuesday's reports from the King County DAJD show that the county is already spending upwards of $3.4 million just to support increases in the jail population. Locking people up for low-level offenses is likely costing the county more than it's keeping anyone safe.