Sheriff seeks to add nursing staff at county jail

EVERETT — Sheriff Ty Trenary is asking the Snohomish County Council for an additional 29 staff positions at the jail, most of them for registered nurses.

Trenary spoke at length at a council meeting Monday about the jail’s ongoing safety problems. He’s been working to fix issues at the jail after a series of inmate deaths and two federal reviews in recent years.

The jail must decrease its inmate population or increase its staffing — or do both — to bring operations in line with the federal recommendations, Trenary said. His proposal on Monday recommended adding jail staff and increasing booking and holding fees for city police departments over the next few years to help pay the cost. Inmates with medical issues or mental-health problems would cost cities more to house.

Changes at the jail are necessary to avoid intervention from the federal Department of Justice, Trenary said. He’s also questioned the use of the jail as a default mental-health holding facility for nonviolent misdemeanor offenders.

Part of Monday’s discussion focused on whether it would make sense to stop jailing misdemeanor suspects arrested by police departments in Snohomish County cities.

Trenary earlier this year announced plans to cut contracts with cities in neighboring counties and the King and Skagit county sheriff’s offices.

It would be unfair to cancel contracts with the cities without giving them time to establish alternatives for locking up misdemeanor inmates, Trenary said. Only Marysville and Lynnwood operate jails. Both have been forced to make changes as the county jail has limited bookings and new restrictions on accepting high-risk inmates.

The county jail holds about 1,000 inmates a day, including about 80 inmates being held for the state Department of Corrections. About 264 people on average are booked at any given time for misdemeanors in cities. The rest are felony bookings throughout the county and misdemeanors in unincorporated areas.

People booked by the state corrections department are often convicts who’ve violated court orders or the conditions of their community supervision, Trenary said. He doesn’t see those bookings as a good place to make cuts. At the same time, people booked by cities have been arrested for criminal activity and could pose a safety threat to the public, he said.

Cities now pay a $96 booking fee and $67 for daily housing of each inmate. The proposal would increase the booking fee up to $135 and the daily holding fee to $110. Medical housing could cost $175 and mental-health housing up to $260. Cities already are supposed to pick up hospital bills for their inmates held at the county jail.

The increases could be parceled out over time, Trenary said.

“I think we owe (the cities) some idea of where it’s headed in fairly short order,” Trenary said.

The county budget cannot continue to absorb cost overruns in the jail, councilman Terry Ryan said. On the other hand, though, problems at the jail have racked up liability costs, councilman Brian Sullivan said.

Changes already made at the jail included hiring a full-time doctor and moving nursing staff into the booking area to evaluate incoming inmates. Several of the inmate deaths over the past few years involved drugs, alcohol and withdrawal symptoms as factors.

At least two of the deaths, both involving people in their 20s, have led to multimillion-dollar claims against the county alleging that the jail failed to provide basic medical care.

In 2012 and early 2013, jail staff at times struggled to keep nurses on site around the clock. The county this year is expected to spend $1.3 million on nurses hired through a temporary agency.

Nurses hired by the county would be more likely to be invested in the jail’s success, Trenary said. With current staffing, he said, it is not possible to respond to inmates’ requests for non-emergency medical care within 24 hours — something recommended in the federal reviews, among other examples.

In addition to nurses, the proposal asks to hire counselors with college degrees, a medical assistant, a social worker and a billing specialist.

Rikki King: 425-339-3449; rking@heraldnet.com.

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