Rantz: King County jails ‘intentionally’ understaffed, under COVID-19 protocols to restrict bookings

Mar 21, 2024, 6:07 PM | Updated: 6:52 pm

Photo: The two adult King County jails are still operating under COVID protocols, refusing to accep...

The two adult King County jails are still operating under COVID protocols, refusing to accept most suspect bookings.The county said this is due to an unprecedented staffing crisis. (Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

(Photo courtesy of KIRO 7)

The two adult King County jails are still operating under COVID-19 protocols, refusing to accept most suspect bookings. The county said this is due to an unprecedented staffing crisis, which is undoubtedly true. But the president of the King County Corrections Guild said staffing solutions are intentionally being ignored to reach the King County Executive’s goal of abolishing jails.

Local law enforcement continue to complain that they cannot book suspects they believe to be dangerous because the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DAJD) won’t accept them. The city of Seattle is most impacted, though the jails serve the entire county. Seattle pays roughly $22 million for 191 spots, but they only average 75 because of the booking restrictions.

Under the COVID protocol, the goal is to lower the daily jail population in their facilities. DAJD officials say they will book “serious and violent offenses.” But non-violent misdemeanors, which make up the majority of area-crimes, get a pass in most circumstances. An officer can issue a notice to appear in court to misdemeanor suspects, but there’s a high likelihood they don’t show up.

A DAJD spokesperson says these restrictions are “still necessary to help safely manage operations with current staffing resources.” The staffing levels have never been this dire.

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Why is staffing at King County jails so catastrophic that it needs COVID-19 protocols?

Currently, the DAJD has 113 job vacancies for budgeted correctional officer positions in King County jails. And there are between 115 and 120 correctional officers who are of retirement age.

While the department says it’s engaged in “robust recruit efforts,” they’re struggling to fill the positions.

A spokesperson for the DAJD says they hired 77 new correctional officers in 2023, far short of their goals. And more worrisome, the King County Corrections Guild says they have had to separate from from many new hires because they’re not able to do the job.

The guild provided to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH a slightly higher number of new hires in 2023 at 86. But, the guild said 23 of the 81 full-time new hires and two of the five part time new hires separated. Some weren’t capable or the job, others were uncomfortable with the substandard working conditions, according to the guild. That puts the net hires for 2023 at just 61. (A DAJD spokesperson said 25.6% of their new hires in 2023 left within a year, up from 23.6% in 2022).

“So, we’ve got a huge retention problem that’s happening,” King County Corrections Guild President Dennis Folk exclusively told the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH. “People are coming in, they’re realizing the conditions in the jail, they don’t want to work for King County. We’re in active bargaining on alternative shifts right now. The county has implemented hiring bonuses, but those things don’t seem to be working. You know, people just don’t want to work for King County. They’re going to these other jurisdictions where they have better work conditions, and they’d just rather be there than King County.”

Folk says the defund police movement and the Black Lives Matter activism embraced by King County Executive Dow Constantine pushed staff out of and future staff away from working in law enforcement.

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Is Executive Dow Constantine intentionally keeping jail staff low?

The most meaningful workplace concern, according to Folk, is the lack of correctional officers.

With record-low staff, the job can be especially dangerous and lead to burnout since many are putting in significant overtime. In 2022, each correctional officer worked an average of 410 overtime hours according to a county audit.

Folk says the guild has offered a number of ideas to help with the crisis, but Constantine, the King County Council, and DAJD Director Allen Nance are “not interested” in helping.

“I think they intentionally want to keep these numbers low,” Folk contended.

“I think it’s just, you know, this idea that criminals are victims, and that they don’t deserve to be in jail. And we need to feel sorry, but I mean, you look at what’s happening in society right now … a lot of people are upset with the crime that’s happening, and, you know, they’re starting to demand action, and we’ve got to do something, something needs to happen,” Folk continued.

Does Director Nance share this view? Folk said that because he and other leaders “are appointed by the Executive’s Office… if you want to hold your job within the department, you’re going to follow the vision of the executive’s office. And if you’re not doing that, they’re going to replace you.”

A recent example of this is King County Sheriff Patti Cole-Tindall’s decision to secretly direct her deputies to ignore a Burien City Council homeless camping ban ordinance. After the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH exclusively revealed the directive, Cole-Tindall announced a legal challenge to the ordinance. Though she says she did it on her own accord, it’s generally believed to be done at the order or influence of Constantine, who opposed the ordinance.

Depopulating jails has been a goal for a while

Constantine has been open about his opposition to incarceration and desire to close jails. But he hasn’t always been so gung ho on this fringe view.

Constantine has repeatedly expressed his prison abolitionist worldview with urgency after the Black Lives Matter activism of 2020 following the death of George Floyd. He vowed to close the main King County Jail in downtown Seattle. Constantine took advantage of the COVID pandemic to purposefully depopulate the jail, leading to a historic rise in crime. With the COVID-19 policy still in place, the crime crisis still rages on.

After previously defending the county’s youth jail, Constantine has since announced his intent to close it. That his announcement came as the county experienced a historic surge in juvenile crime did not matter. It was a nod to progressive activists that he saw as crucial to his political survival and his ultimate goal of seeking higher office. Politically, it’s not as risky as one might think because the timeline to close the youth jail has been delayed until at least 2028 and it won’t happen, anyway. State law requires King County to have a juvenile detention facility.

King County Executive Dow Constantine, not running for re-election, is setting up his political future

Barring a last minute change of heart, Constantine is not running for reelection. He may make an announcement in the coming weeks. A spokesperson did not respond to a question about his plans.

But this means that in 2028 he won’t have any hand in whether or not the youth jail is closed. If he thinks it’s still politically advantageous to see it closed, he’ll say he tried. But what else can he do? He’s not in that office.

If it doesn’t benefit him, Constantine will distance himself from the decision and pretend he didn’t support closing it, likely pointing to his comments supporting the youth jail pre-COVID-19. He should feel confident that local media will give him a pass because, for the most part, they always give him a pass.

Who will run for King County executive? King County Assessor John Wilson will announce his run for the executive role and will likely be favored amongst more moderate voices. King County Council members Claudia Balducci and Girmay Zahilay are also considering runs. Both are different shades of blue, with Zahilay the most extreme, anti-police voice of the potential candidates. He will likely earn the support of the loud, but small, activist class.

Executive’s office and DAJD push back

The Executive’s Office and the DAJD, via a joint statement, say that restoring the staffing levels at King County jails is one of their “highest priorities.” They believe that the DAJD “have been demonstrating their commitment to this priority with substantial ongoing action over the last several years.”

“There is fierce competition for qualified applicants, and this is especially true for public safety agencies. This is why King County offers hiring incentives of $12,000 for new correction officers and juvenile detention officers, regardless of experience, and $25,000 for lateral (experienced) hires,” the statement to the Jason Rantz Show on KTTH says.

The statement also says they are committed to reducing the amount of overtime hours but noted they are paying higher wages to minimize the impacts on the work-life balance of Correctional Officers.

“Going forward, we will continue to explore additional ways to support our employees and restore sustainable staffing levels to ensure that we are providing the safest environment possible for everyone who works, visits or is housed at our detention facilities,” the statement continues. “We count on our corrections guild as our key partner in both recruitment and retention of outstanding colleagues.” (A PDF of the full statement can be viewed here.)

Listen to The Jason Rantz Show on weekday afternoons from 3-6 p.m. on KTTH 770 AM (HD Radio 97.3 FM HD-Channel 3). Subscribe to the podcast here. Follow Jason on X, formerly known as TwitterInstagram and Facebook.

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Rantz: King County jails ‘intentionally’ understaffed, under COVID-19 protocols to restrict bookings