EVERETT — With a new tough-on-crime sheriff poised to take charge of law enforcement and the Snohomish County Jail, the county executive is suggesting jail management be taken away from the sheriff and returned to the executive branch.
“My office has been considering asking the County Council to put the jail back under the Executive office,” Executive Dave Somers said in a Facebook post Saturday. “It was this way for many years.”
If his idea becomes reality, the change would reverse a move Somers supported as a County Council member in 2008, when the Corrections Department was dissolved to save money and address friction between jail management and unionized workers. The final decision would be up to a council vote.
In his Facebook post, Somers said he’s concerned about preserving reforms to prevent inmate deaths and treat would-be inmates for mental health issues and substance abuse.
“My interest is making sure that we recognize the jail is not only a detention facility, but also our largest mental health and substance abuse facility,” Somers wrote. “… We finally have our jail accredited as being one of the best in the country. Want to make sure we continue this progress. Not too many years ago we were under (a U.S. Department of Justice) investigation and paying out millions in fines.”
The executive could not be reached for further comment Sunday.
Sheriff-elect Adam Fortney decried the idea and said he met Friday with Somers and Sgt. Jeff Brand about the proposal.
“Since I haven’t had even one conversation with the county executive prior to this meeting I think I was able to correct some preconceived notions he may have had about my plans for the jail,” Fortney wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page. “… I can assure everyone if he chooses to move forward with this plan there will be very public opposition to it. For now I have to honor my word to the executive and give him a chance to reconsider this move.”
Fortney, a night-shift sergeant in the department, campaigned as a law-and-order candidate. He has said that under Sheriff Ty Trenary’s leadership, jail bookings for low-level offenses were often blocked when suspects were under the influence of drugs, frustrating deputies on the street. That policy recently was ended.
Fortney also has said he will support treatment programs Trenary helped put in place and seek to improve them.
“Hear me loud and clear,” he said in an interview before the election. “Never once have I said, or is it a platform of my campaign, to dismantle any of the social services.”
Fortney decisively beat Trenary in the Nov. 5 election with more than 55% of the vote. He takes office in January.
In the debate over moving jail management back to the executive branch, County Councilmen Nate Nehring and Sam Low, both Republicans, supported Fortney in a joint statement Saturday.
“We are strongly opposed to this sort of proposal as we believe it directly undermines the will of the voters of Snohomish County,” the statement said. “Sheriff-elect Fortney made his case to the voters in the recent election, received broad support, and deserves the opportunity to perform the duties which he was elected to do.”
The other three County Council members, all Democrats, could not be reached for comment Sunday, so it’s not clear if Somers has the votes to make the change if he were to pursue the idea.
Under the present arrangement, the elected sheriff oversees more than 700 employees who patrol the streets, run the jail and perform other law enforcement duties.
The jail in Everett has a complicated history that includes a dozen inmate deaths between 2010 and 2014.
In July 2013, then-Sheriff John Lovick asked the Department of Justice to review the jail after at least seven inmates died within a few years. Within another year, the total reached a dozen. Subsequent changes improved staffing and procedures for monitoring incarcerated people.
Out of necessity, there also have been changes in the scope of the jail’s services.
As the opioid epidemic intensified, awareness grew that the justice system presented a first opportunity in many cases to treat people. More than one out of three inmates brought in tests positive for opioids, The Herald reported earlier this year, and the jail’s medical unit frequently operates at 150% to 200% above capacity.
This story has been modified. An earlier version misidentified Jeff Brand’s rank and title with the Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office. He is a sergeant.