The Snohomish County Jail has lifted booking restrictions that led to a dramatic drop in the inmate population amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

The Snohomish County Jail has lifted booking restrictions that led to a dramatic drop in the inmate population amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (Sue Misao / The Herald)

Snohomish County sheriff ‘ready to increase’ jail population

Adam Fortney has lifted booking restrictions after the inmate count dipped by two-thirds amid COVID-19.

EVERETT — The Snohomish County Jail has lifted booking restrictions that led to a dramatic drop in the inmate population amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Instead, in a letter sent April 21 to law enforcement agencies, Sheriff Adam Fortney said he’ll leave the booking decisions to “officer discretion.” He said the jail has room for a moderate increase in inmate population while maintaining social distancing measures and keeping inmates isolated from one another.

At the beginning of March, the jail averaged about 800 inmates. By the end of April the number had dipped to about 300.

“We have the capacity to do this safely!” he wrote, saying the jail already exceeded recommendations for correctional facilities laid out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Fortney released the letter the same day he publicly criticized Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order, prompting a citizen to petition for Fortney’s removal from office.

The exact booking restriction guidelines have not been made public. Under the restrictions, jail bookings were still mandatory for certain serious charges, such as sex offenses, violent offenses, domestic violence and DUI. The booking sergeant was also allowed to make case-by-case determinations on warrant and misdemeanor arrests, sheriff’s spokesperson Courtney O’Keefe said.

“Disheartening,” said the director of the Snohomish County Public Defender Association, Kathleen Kyle, of the decision.

She said the jail had just gotten to a point in implementing precautions where everyone could take a deep breath. When she saw Fortney’s memo, Kyle said, that brief moment of relief “was ripped out from under us.” She expressed concern for the safety of the inmates, public defenders, prosecutors, court staff, police and others who interact daily with the county’s criminal justice system.

According to a U.S. Department of Justice study, about half of all jail inmates live with a chronic health condition, and an estimated 10% of jail inmates have asthma.

Snohomish County Corrections Bureau Chief Jamie Kane expounded on Fortney’s policy change in a letter April 26, addressed to county officials in the courts and local government.

“While it may have appeared at face value to intentionally contradict many of your efforts to lower our jail’s population, it was not arbitrary, nor was it made without great deliberation, internal dialogue, and a significant operational assessment and review,” Kane wrote.

As the pandemic wore on, the sheriff’s office adjusted what it considered to be “maximum capacity,” Kane wrote. Currently, the jail has more than 600 cells available for single occupancy, and there is enough personal protective equipment for both staff and inmates, according to the sheriff’s office. And so far, Kane noted, Snohomish County has had far fewer inmates than other jails of comparable size in Washington. According to data Kane obtained from the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, other county jails with inmate populations greater than or equal to Snohomish County’s saw a 38% to 44% reduction during the pandemic. The jail in Everett had experienced a 69% drop, at least as of April 17, when the local population was at its very lowest.

Only one much larger jail — likely King County, though the association didn’t divulge names in its data set — released more inmates, and even then it still housed more than 1,200 people.

The number of inmates at the Snohomish County Jail has fluctuated in the days since Fortney lifted restrictions. On Monday, the population reached a peak of 373 inmates. By Thursday, it dipped again to 322.

Under Fortney’s predecessor, the jail had an average of population of about 921 inmates.

Most people in the county jail are awaiting trial and are presumed innocent.

The new coronavirus has ripped through Snohomish County, where as of Friday there were 2,467 confirmed and 229 probable cases, including 109 deaths, according to the Snohomish Health District.

Two employees and five inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. The sheriff’s office believes both employees contracted the virus outside of work. All of the inmates were either suspected or confirmed to be positive when they were booked, and they have since been released. Three of them were quarantined at Angel of the Winds Arena. The other two were released back to the community after the health district determined they were no longer contagious.

“We do not believe any staff or inmates have contracted COVID-19 in our jail as they either arrived with it or had a known exposure outside the facility,” O’Keefe wrote in an email.

The restrictions can be reinstated as needed to control the size of the population, Kane wrote. In making a decision like that, the corrections bureau will look at four categories: capacity to house every inmate in a single-occupancy cell; whether there’s an adequate supply of personal protective equipment; staff absentee rates; and the ability to adhere to COVID-19 guidelines set forth by health officials.

Calling the jail “one of the safest places in Snohomish County right now,” Fortney said in a statement that he couldn’t justify telling law enforcement agencies that the jail is closed when there is “safe, secure, and available space to house inmates.”

“What kind of message does that send our community, who rightfully expects us to provide public safety services, even in the midst of a pandemic?” he said.

He wrote in his April 21 letter that he wanted to give “discretion back to officers, troopers, and deputies to make a physical arrest when they think it is necessary to protect the public.”

It’s phrasing that echoes his election campaign last year. Fortney won resoundingly on a “law-and-order” message, drawing contrast with his opponent and former Sheriff Ty Trenary’s more compassionate approach to policing. Fortney often quipped that he would “take the handcuffs off police officers and put them on the criminals where they belong.”

But since Fortney’s administration clamped down in response to the pandemic, the jail has had a lower inmate population than it ever had under his predecessor. Kane noted the county hasn’t seen so few inmates since the 1980s. Those who have been released are “now free to commit other crimes,” Fortney wrote. Fortney’s letter did not include concrete evidence that crime rates have gone up, down or stayed the same amid the pandemic.

“It is only a matter of time before this goes bad,” Fortney wrote, “and it will not be for lack of effort on our part to house these offenders within Snohomish County Corrections.”

Kyle said she doesn’t understand Fortney’s goal in easing booking restrictions, particularly for defendants who are brought in on minor, non-violent charges. This week, the state Supreme Court extended an emergency order, pausing trials through July 6. Suspects essentially are incarcerated with no resolution in sight. In the meantime, Kyle said, they’re confined to a “small cage” by themselves for up to 22 hours a day.

Fortney has limited sway in deciding who stays in jail long-term.

Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell said Thursday he wouldn’t change the temporary policies his office adopted in March. That includes releasing inmates held on non-violent and non-sexual offenses if that defendant has compromised health; is in a high-risk group due to age; is charged with a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor that is not a DUI or related to domestic violence; is charged with simple possession of a controlled substance and has “limited prior felony charges”; or would be eligible for an alternative justice program.

That could mean some who are booked at the jail could be released in a matter of hours, or a few days at most, when they appear in court for a bail hearing. Cornell said he didn’t foresee changing his approach so long as public health remained a concern, and while the criminal justice system has ground to a halt.

“This pandemic remains a threat,” he said, “and there continues to be the possibility it can make people sick and kill people.”

Elsewhere, at the state’s Monroe Correctional Complex, eight staff and 15 prisoners have become infected with the new coronavirus, according to the state Department of Corrections. Dozens of inmates protested conditions at the prison in April, culminating in unrest that was quelled using pepper spray and sting balls.

A handful of inmates in Washington state prisons also joined a petition to the state Supreme Court, requesting the immediate release of thousands of others held behind bars. The court denied that petition, but Gov. Jay Inslee ordered the release of hundreds of prisoners.

Zachariah Bryan: 425-339-3431; zbryan@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @zachariahtb.

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