Progress on jail reforms

After eight deaths at the county jail since 2010, Snohomish County Sheriff Ty Trenary unveiled plans Tuesday to ramp up medical services and other reforms. It’s a promising move, a harbinger, we hope, of a comprehensive strategy and clear-eyed leadership style.

Trenary’s proposal not only makes whole the need to tackle the jail’s poor delivery of health services, but responds to systemic challenges, including the lure of drawing “contract” inmates.

The broader dilemma of mental-health delivery and a first-responder MO of ferrying the mentally ill to the county lockup demands regional, cross-sector leadership. Currently in Snohomish County, in-patient psychiatric beds for adults are available only at Swedish/Edmonds hospital. The hoosegow doubles as the county’s psychiatric facility.

As The Herald’s Eric Stevick and Rikki King report, Trenary’s plans include additional nurses and mental-health professionals, transitioning to electronic medical records and enhanced screening of inmates before they’re booked. In the short-term, the jail will hire a three-day-a-week doctor. The position may become fulltime in 2014, budget-permitting.

Trenary, appointed in July to replace John Lovick, embraces an inventory/best practices model. In March, then-Sheriff Lovick requested operational advice from the National Institute of Corrections, a division of the U.S. Department of Justice. Authorities already visited the jail and its medical unit and return again next month before finalizing their recommendations.

Trenary turned to the Pierce County Sheriff’s office for an impartial once-over. As Stevick and King write, Pierce County has faced similar jail troubles. The takeaway was elemental: “Their concern is we didn’t have enough medical staffing,” Trenary said

The sheriff also underlined the need to review inmates accepted under contract from other jurisdictions. The contracts generate money for the jail, but the inmates often are freighted with medical and psychiatric problems.

Lastly, the jail brings into focus the need for an independent county ombudsman to police complaints (not on the official reform list, so a gentle elbow.) Using the King County Ombudsman’s office as a template, citizens would have a vehicle to investigate accusations against administrative agencies, from the jail, to the Sheriff’s office, to the office of the county executive. In King County, half of the cases center on the county jail.

The mission is to facilitate a solution in real time and resolve problems quickly. The approach creates a culture of accountability.

And accountability, at last, appears within sight.

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