The Benton County jail could become a standalone department independent of the sheriff’s office if a new study shows the move could save money.
County executives want to know if there’s a business case for creating a local Department of Corrections to manage the jail.
Six Washington counties have made the move to save money, arguing it provides a more direct link between commissioners who control the budget and jail managers. A county Department of Corrections is not the same as the state agency of the same name, which oversees state prisons.
If I had that jail, I never would have had the time to do that. It freed me up to do a lot of good things.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich
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If Benton County moves ahead, it will break with a nationwide tradition that makes sheriffs responsible for county jails. Nationally, sheriffs manage 85 percent of the roughly 3,300 county jails in the U.S. according to the National Sheriffs’ Association.
In Washington, where the law allows the change, six of 39 counties operate jails separately from the sheriff’s department: Yakima, Spokane, Walla Walla, Cowlitz, King and Snohomish.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said turning the jail over to the county in 2015 allowed him to help create a human rights task force that combats discrimination, bigotry and hate speech, among other issues.
“If I had that jail, I never would have had the time to do that. It freed me up to do a lot of good things,” he said.
Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin said a county-led group, including acting Sheriff Jerry Hatcher, will develop a list of questions for other counties that have made the move to learn what works, what doesn’t and how the split might work here.
There are no plans to hire a consultant and if the county moves ahead, it won’t happen until next January, he said.
The jail is very, very time-consuming. It is high liability. You have to pay attention to it.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich
The change wouldn’t affect corrections workers, who are represented by Teamsters Local 839, except to make them employees of a new department rather than the sheriff’s office.
Although the matter was not on the agenda, the Benton County Commission voted 2-1 earlier this month to pursue the concept.
Delvin and Commission Chair Jim Beaver support the idea. Commissioner Shon Small, a former sheriff’s deputy, voted no, saying correctional staff have worked hard to improve communications with the county and to reduce overtime costs.
In Franklin County, Sheriff Jim Raymond said there is no movement in his county to split off the jail.
Sheriff change triggers discussion
The Benton County jail houses up to 740 inmates and has an average daily population of about 500.
It employs 110 and has an annual budget of about $17 million, making it the county’s single largest expense, accounting for roughly a quarter of its operating budget.
The jail is paid for through the county’s general fund budget, which relies heavily on property taxes. State law prevents counties from raising property tax collections by more than 1 percent annually, no matter how much its population grows.
With an election coming up, it’s the right time to look at it.
Benton County Commissioner Jerome Delvin
While the commission was divided on studying a Department of Corrections approach, all three members say removing the jail from the sheriff’s list of duties is not a strike against former Sheriff Steven Keane or Hatcher.
Instead, they see Keane’s recent retirement as an opportunity to discuss it in a year when a new sheriff will be elected.
“With an election coming up, it’s the right time to look at it,” Delvin said.
If the commissioners separate the jail from the sheriff’s office, it will create a new department with an administrator focused exclusively on the jail and related operations. While that appears to create a new layer of management, the review will consider if direct management might reduce overall costs.
Hatcher, who currently is serving as both sheriff and undersheriff, endorsed the discussion.
“We should always evaluate where things are to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers,” he said.
We should always evaluate where things are to be fiscally responsible to the taxpayers.
Acting Sheriff Jerry Hatcher
While the sheriff’s department now sends a daily report to keep the commission apprised of inmate numbers and jail issues, Delvin cited a recent claim by a woman who was apparently too long in the jail instead of being transferred to another jurisdiction as an example of why commissioners are interested in playing a more direct role.
The county paid $18,000 to settle the woman’s complaint.
How it works in Yakima, Spokane
Yakima County was one of the first to make the change, establishing its Department of Corrections in 1993, said Ed Campbell, director.
Campbell said when sheriffs are responsible for both law enforcement and jails it can lead to the two sides competing for resources. Separating them allows managers to focus on their core business.
“Jails are very expensive to run. They’re very unique and they’re clearly much different than the law enforcement function that sheriffs’ offices do,” he said.
Jails are very expensive to run. They’re very unique and they’re clearly much different than the law enforcement function that sheriffs’ offices do.
Ed Campbell, director Yakima County Department of Corrections
In Yakima, the jail operates as an “enterprise fund,” independent of the sheriff’s office and other departments. Campbell said the county allocates a portion of its operating budget and the balance is made up by contracting with state and federal agencies to house their prisoners.
Spokane County is a more recent convert.
It established a separate “detention services” department after Knezovich suggested the commission take control in 2015, citing ongoing disputes over adequate funding.
Knezovich said he refused to take it back a year later, saying funding issues hadn’t been resolved and he was happy to focus on public safety, not corrections.
“The jail is very, very time-consuming. It is high liability. You have to pay attention to it,” he said.