County Corrections Bureau Chief Tony Aston (left) and Gov. Jay Inslee talk at the Snohomish County Jail on Friday. (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)

County Corrections Bureau Chief Tony Aston (left) and Gov. Jay Inslee talk at the Snohomish County Jail on Friday. (Snohomish County Sheriff’s Office)

Governor impressed by Snohomish County Jail reforms

EVERETT — Not so long ago, the Snohomish County Jail was gaining a regional reputation for trouble.

There was inmate crowding, the soaring cost of overtime, and a string of more than a dozen in-custody deaths. Most occurred among detainees who were wrestling with mental illness or had other health problems, including withdrawals from alcohol abuse or heroin addiction.

But reforms instituted under the direction of Sheriff Ty Trenary since 2013 now are bringing a different type of scrutiny.

Gov. Jay Inslee came to tour the jail Friday. He left impressed.

“Snohomish County is a state leader in jail diversion,” the governor said Tuesday in a prepared statement. “This innovative effort starts at entry, when people are pre-screened to identify those with mental and behavioral health needs — ensuring people get what they need while incarcerated. They also connect inmates to needed services upon release which reduces the risk of returning to jail.

“This is a model that could be replicated statewide,” Inslee said.

The governor toured the jail’s booking area and its medical unit — a place routinely full of people detoxing from opioids.

Inslee asked for the visit after learning earlier this month about the partnership jail officials have forged with the state Department of Social and Health Services.

The state is under federal court order to reduce long delays in conducting forensic mental health evaluations and in restoring competency among people who are locked up for criminal cases but might be too ill to assist their attorneys in their own defense.

Snohomish County prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges, and corrections and human services staff came together to create a court rule that allows for the jail’s mental health professionals to conduct preliminary mental health screenings. They can quickly identify those who need a full competency evaluation by a psychologist, reducing some of the wait times for inmates living with mental illnesses.

The county has provided office space in the jail for a state forensic psychologist. That person works closely with jail staff to identify detainees with mental health issues, and to swiftly conduct competency evaluations without the need to transport the person to Western State Hospital in Pierce County.

The screening also makes it easier to connect people living with mental illness with care providers and programs prior to their release from custody. The jail also implemented electronic medical records to better track the needs of inmates.

The aim is to reduce the number of people whose mental illness is leading to encounters with police and playing a role in their being brought to the jail.

“If what we are doing helps others and it gets mentally ill out of jails, I’m really proud of that,” Trenary said.

The governor also was told about efforts the county is making at the jail to combat opioid addiction, a problem that public health officials consider an epidemic in Snohomish County.

The jail has taken steps to more closely monitor the health of people who begin to experience withdrawals after being locked up on criminal charges.

By month’s end, the county hopes to begin connecting people at the jail with programs that offer medication shown to help addicts maintain hard-won sobriety.

The program at the jail would be the first of its type in the state, said Cammy Hart-Anderson, a Snohomish County Human Services division manager.

“We are only able to do it because these folks let us into their house,” she said.

Mary Jane Brell Vujovic, the county’s director of human services, called it “a dream partnership.”

County Corrections Bureau Chief Tony Aston said the governor heard about other changes that have been made in the jail, including booking policies and a shift in philosophy about how the lockup should be used.

Under Trenary, the jail population is more closely managed and some bookings are turned away if the person’s medical condition is such that they belong in a hospital bed instead of behind bars.

Kathleen Kyle, the executive director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, said the measures taken by the sheriff’s office and human services are having a positive effect on the lives of some the county’s most vulnerable.

“I’m not saying the job is done. We have a lot of work to do,” she said. “We need more partnerships to do the work. I have to say, though, corrections had really come to the table and is getting creative.”

Diana Hefley and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Scott North: 425-339-3431; Twitter: @snorthnews.

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