King County wants its own corrections officer training program

Officials say a long waitlist for the state-run academy is causing hiring delays while county jails struggle with understaffing.

the corner of a gray jail building

The King County Correctional Facility on Friday, Oct. 23, 2020, in Downtown Seattle. (Jovelle Tamayo for Cascade PBS)

With 108 corrections officer vacancies at King County jails and a long waiting list for the mandatory state academy, county officials are exploring whether they can create their own corrections officer training program.

King County operates two adult jails: one in Downtown Seattle and one in Kent. Full staffing at the two facilities requires 503 corrections officers. 

The lengthy waitlist at the state Criminal Justice Training Commission’s (CJTC) mandatory academy is not the only factor in the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention’s hiring challenges, but King County Prosecuting Attorney Leesa Manion called it a “choke point” for getting new corrections officers on the job.

That description comes from a letter Manion sent to the Washington Attorney General in November asking for an analysis of whether counties have the legal authority to run their own corrections officer training. Attorney General Bob Ferguson has not yet issued his opinion.

CJTC leadership does not support the idea.

“We certify our training. We won’t certify someone else’s training,” said Monica Alexander, CJTC executive director, in an interview with Cascade PBS.

Manion argues in her letter that while state statute explicitly says that the CJTC has the “sole authority” to conduct required law enforcement training, the relevant statute for corrections officer training does not have that same “sole authority” language. The law instead states that corrections officers “shall engage in basic corrections training which complies with standards adopted by the commission.”

Manion wrote, “If the Legislature had intended the CJTC to have the sole authority to provide corrections training and certification, it would have included the ‘sole authority’ language that is found in the law enforcement training statute.”

The letter notes that any county-run training program would “operate within CJTC standards in order to graduate competent and certified corrections officers.” 

Corrections officers in Washington are required by law to complete the CJTC’s 10-week training academy. Until recently, the CJTC has offered five courses a year with space for 36 corrections officers in each class.

Alexander said that when the commission switched two years ago to the 10-week course from the previous six-week version, they were struggling to fill each class. Then there was a boom in post-pandemic demand for the academy.

In December 2022, the CJTC had an 88-person waitlist for its corrections officer course. In April 2023, the waitlist was up to 100. Today there’s a 253-person waitlist.

Alexander acknowledged that the lengthy waits for training have slowed corrections officer hiring for King County and other jurisdictions, but thinks it will be a temporary problem. This session, the Legislature appropriated an additional $4.8 million for corrections officer classes. The CJTC was able to add one additional course this fiscal year, and is adding nine additional courses to the schedule next fiscal year.

King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention doesn’t think that the current appropriations will be enough, which is why the County is continuing to pursue the possibility of conducting its own training. In an email, department spokesperson Noah Haglund wrote, “While [the new additions of classes] will help in the short term, more academy classes are needed over a longer period given staff shortages throughout the state.”

Haglund specified that King County wants to use officers who used to lead trainings for the CJTC to run its proposed courses.

Like many correctional facilities, King County jails saw a wave of retirements and other departures during the pandemic. That trend has continued, with officers leaving faster than the county can hire and train new recruits.

As a result of understaffing, corrections officers are often required to work 16-hour double shifts. The union representing King County corrections officers told KING 5 that the shortage of officers and extreme overtime is leading to sleep deprivation, unsafe working conditions and burnout.

The short staffing limits how many people can be booked into local jails. King County has kept its COVID-19 booking restrictions on nonviolent misdemeanors. People can be booked into King County jails only for serious or violent offenses, including all felonies.  

The staffing shortage affects incarcerated people as well. Last year, the ACLU sued King County over conditions in the Downtown Seattle jail. In its lawsuit, the organization cited the impacts of understaffing, such as reducing people’s access to medical and mental health care, among other issues.

Haglund said restoring full staffing remains the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention’s top priority.

In addition to exploring launching its own training program, the department has expanded its outreach and recruitment efforts, offering $12,000 hiring bonuses for new recruits and $25,000 bonuses for lateral hires of experienced corrections officers from other jurisdictions. Out-of-state lateral hires can also get $5,000 for moving expenses, and King County employees who make a successful hiring referral are eligible for a $5,000 referral bonus.

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