Split commission votes for immediate takeover of Benton County jail

Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher will no longer oversee the county jail after the elected commissioners voted Tuesday on an immediate takeover.

The commission decided 2-1 to assume control of the 700-plus bed jail at midnight.

The decision removes the jail from the control of a sheriff who is under heightened public scrutiny over complaints about his conduct in office and accusations he abused his now-estranged wife during an argument over an affair.

Commissioners Jerome Delvin and Jim Beaver supported the takeover. Commission Chair Shon Small, a former sheriff’s deputy, voted against it.

Delvin proposed creating the separate jail department — for a second time in as many years — during the commission’s Oct. 8 meeting.

A former police officer and state lawmaker, Delvin bluntly accused the sheriff of mismanaging the jail, failing to pay Lourdes Health Services for mental health support to inmates, using the jail budget as a “piggy bank” to fund the patrol division and creating morale issues by leaving the jail understaffed.

Delvin said he fears Lourdes will stop supporting inmates. And he pledged to expand mental health services in the jail.

Delvin said the county needed to reduce the number of people supervised by the elected sheriff.

He said some jail staff members contacted him to encourage the commission to take over the jail. He said staffers confided that they privately refer to Hatcher as “the tyrant.”

The jail has about 100 employees. Hatcher retains oversight another 100 other employees in the law enforcement operation, including the patrol and detectives divisions.

Benton Jail Cell windows
Benton County Sheriff Jerry Hatcher Tri-City Herald

Beaver, who participated in the meeting by phone because of a family emergency, supported Delvin’s arguments for the swift change.

“We have a serious leadership void ... ,” he said.

Hatcher did not attend the meeting but spoke with media after the session ended. He defended the jail’s record on addressing mental health and addiction issues.

He shifted blame for the Lourdes bill back to the commissioners, noting that is the responsibility of the health department.

The sheriff’s department would have paid it but did not receive it, he said.

Hatcher said he proposed Monday night that the commissioners pay for a feasibility study to ensure a more thoughtful transition of the jail, but said he received no response.

“Why are we in such a rush?” he asked. “There is no justification for this. We have the best or one of the best jails in the state.”

Tri-City Herald online readers can view the commission’s notification letter to Sheriff Hatcher at the bottom of this column.

Department of Corrections

The newly created county Department of Corrections will take over the jail and its related support operations at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday.

Former Benton County Jail Commander Scott Souza agreed to assume command from Commander Tom Croskrey. Croskrey will lose his job unless Hatcher retains him on the law enforcement side.

Hatcher said corrections employees will no longer be commissioned under his authority, eliminating their ability to serve warrants on prisoners or respond to conflicts in the adjoining Benton County Justice Center, among other duties.

Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

On Tuesday, he ordered corrections officers to remove their uniforms from the sheriff’s department locker room before the changeover at midnight. He also ordered corrections staff to remove badges and patches with the sheriff’s office logo from their uniforms.

Delvin and Beaver voted to authorize Loretta Smith-Kelty, interim county administrator, to hire an interim jail administrator to assist Souza with budget and other management matters during the transition.

Smith-Kelty said she hasn’t had a chance to consider a suitable candidate.

The change will add at least one new executive level employee to the county payroll. The amount of that salary was not discussed at the meeting.

The county’s 2019-2020 biennial budget includes $36.6 million for the jail, or 28 percent of total expenditures.

Souza praised jail staff and said it will continue to run the jail safely and efficiently. There were about 600 inmates in custody Tuesday.

Benton is now one of seven counties to separate its jail from the sheriff’s office, joining Yakima, Walla Walla and Spokane, among others.

Small, who opposed the takeover, said he wanted more information about the financial implications.

“Let’s do our due diligence,” he said, highlighting a typo in the official resolution to enable the takeover. “Let’s make sure we dot the dots,” he said.

The takeover caps a bitter and public dispute between Hatcher and Delvin in the weeks since Hatcher was accused of abusing his estranged wife in court documents related to his divorce.

Monica Hatcher went to Delvin with complaints that Hatcher had choked her during an argument over an affair two years ago.

The Washington State Patrol investigated. The Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office filed, then withdrew, criminal charges in the case, saying more investigation was needed.

Delvin and the sheriff have spent weeks swapping insults, each accusing the other of telling lies and half truths to advance his own agenda.

Benton Commission Jail vote
Benton County Commissioners Shon Small, left, and Jerome Delvin question interim county administrator Loretta Smith Kelty during their meeting in Prosser. The county commission voted 2-1 to assume control of the 700-plus bed jail. Watch a video at: tricityherald.com/videos Bob Brawdy Tri-City Herald

Tuesday’s session also highlighted tension between Delvin and Small.

Delvin suggested Small would vote against the takeover out of loyalty to Hatcher.

Small objected.

“You made a comment about my loyalty to the sheriff. My loyalty is to the taxpayers,” he said.

Related stories from Tri-City Herald

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.