EVERETT — Talks are under way to repurpose Snohomish County’s recently mothballed work release building as a way to divert people from jail and get others off the streets and into long-term recovery for addiction and mental illness.
Sheriff Ty Trenary says the building, near the old Carnegie library, is nearly turn-key ready and could fill a gap in ongoing efforts to get people help instead of locking them up.
The sheriff’s office has teamed up with the city of Everett, the county’s Human Services division, the courts, prosecutors and the Office of Public Defense to study how to convert the work release building into a potential sobering center, as well as a pre-prosecution diversion program for low-level nonviolent offenders.
“Arresting people and locking them up is costly and not a permanent solution,” Trenary said Tuesday. “We want to take the lessons we’ve learned from our Office of Neighborhoods and work the problem to help people become healthy and no longer consuming public safety dollars.”
The sheriff launched his Office of Neighborhoods two years ago to team deputies up with social workers and to connect with those living on the streets. Everett created a similar program around the same time as part of the city’s Community Streets Initiative. The idea is to address some of the issues that lead to homelessness and arrests, such as addiction and untreated mental illnesses.
Other police departments have started their own social-worker programs as the county sees the fallout from the increase in opiate abuse.
Trenary has been looking at ways to change how the county uses the jail since taking office. For years, the Everett lock-up has been a defacto mental health hospital and detox center. Trenary has implemented stricter booking restrictions for nonviolent offenders and launched programs inside the jail to help inmates once they leave, to find addiction treatment, services and housing.
Trenary announced last year that he planned to shut down the work release program to meet a budget shortfall. Work release was offered to some criminal defendants who had jobs but faced a jail sentence. Defendants were housed in the secure facility near the jail when they weren’t working.
Trenary opted to shut down the program to save about $1.3 million a year. That helped him keep the Office of Neighborhoods and the Violent Offender Task Force, a partnership with the U.S. Marshals Service.
The work release building hasn’t been used since late last year.
The sheriff said it could provide short-term beds for up to 80 people.
Planning is in the early stages.
Trenary said he can envision a sobering center where people could get off the street to conquer those early days of coming off drugs or alcohol. They could get connected to other social service resources through a county navigator. There also is a discussion about using the building to divert people away from the jail as part of a pre-prosecution program. That could mean fewer people caught up in the courts and jails.
“We can localize the solution and help more people while we’re doing it,” Trenary said.
As things stand now, embedded social workers often must send people out of the county to take those first steps toward recovery. The resources just aren’t here, the sheriff said.
Hil Kaman is part of the talks as Everett’s director of public safety and health. With the building located near the downtown corridor, the city wants to make sure it’s consistent with Everett’s goals, security and economic development in the area, Kaman said.
The city also has a stake in the jail’s capacity to hold offenders who need to be locked up, he said.
“We’re going to be part of the planning and development to make sure it works for us,” Kaman said.
The county already has plans to convert the former Carnegie library near the jail into a social service hub with 20 beds of transitional housing but that project could be years off.
The Carnegie library is on the National Register of Historic Places and the county has said it plans to maintain the historical integrity of the building. It has been vacant for several years.
The social services center on the upper floor could be up and running by early 2018, but the lower floor for housing will take longer, said Mary Jane Brell Vujovic, the director of Snohomish County Human Services.
Housing in the former work release building likely could be ready before then.
The stakeholders group is looking at how to use both buildings most efficiently and with the biggest return, Brell Vujovic said.
Trenary estimates that it’ll take about $2 million a year to run the Carnegie building and the program at the old work release building. The sheriff said the plan isn’t to use any general fund dollars to operate the jail diversion center.
The group is looking at existing funds and possibly help from the Legislature and the local Behavioral Health Organization, which doles out federal and state money to counties for mental health and addiction treatment services. Trenary also said the group is looking to leverage Medicaid money.
The voters were clear when they turned down a sales tax increase last year that was pitched as a means to combat addiction and property crimes, Trenary said. The ballot measure was defeated in August.
“That didn’t change our responsibility,” Trenary said.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; email@example.com.