Drug abuse often leads to crime. Here is Benton County sheriff’s plan to break that cycle

On any given day, one out of every five Benton County jail inmates has an opioid addiction.

While Sheriff Jerry Hatcher brought medical staff into the jail to keep addicts safe as they go through withdrawals, he said a lot of the time inmates aren’t incarcerated long enough for them to get clean.

“I’ve literally seen people leave the jail and they’re still detoxing and in need of a fix, and they shoot up in the parking lot” he said. “They can’t wait even five minutes to get out of the parking lot.”

When they’re outside of the jail, the Tri-Cities doesn’t have a place to safely go through drug withdrawal, he said. If they aren’t clean and sober, they can’t get into a treatment facility, which makes it more likely they’ll commit another crime.

“So what happens is they get dumped in jails,” Hatcher said. “We’ve got to change this model, and we’re going to try and treat these people instead of incarcerating them.”

The sheriff has a plan to help break the cycle — convert part of the jail into a detox center.

Every private residential treatment center that opened in the Tri-Cities has folded, while every other major city including Yakima, Spokane and Wenatchee, has at least one up and running, Hatcher said.

Without a detox facility, the jail often becomes a user’s first chance to get off of drugs.

Jerry Hatcher

Hatcher is not alone in seeing the need to do something. He has gotten support for the idea from Benton County commissioners, the Franklin County sheriff and Kennewick’s police chief.

“The cost of doing nothing is that we have more deaths,” Chief Ken Hohenberg said during a presentation Tuesday night..

In February, Kennewick-based Ideal Option started providing a medically assisted treatment program in the jail, which combines medicine to curb withdrawal symptoms along with counseling.

Each week, Hatcher receives a report about how many inmates are currently receiving treatment and why they are incarcerated.

Since starting the program, he’s seen great success as counselors work with inmates. About half of the people leaving the jail on a weekly basis show up at their treatment appointment.

The move is part of Hatcher’s larger effort with the Benton Franklin Recovery Coalition, which is made up of health and law enforcement officials.

In a late March presentation, the coalition’s president, Michele Gerber, agreed the jail turns into a constant cycle of drug abuse and incarceration.

“These revolving door expenses don’t turn up as a line item where you can say, ‘I captured all of these costs,’” she said.

The plan for the center

Hatcher’s vision is to give people facing jail for minor crimes, such as trespassing or disorderly conduct, a choice — get clean or go to jail. It is a system similar to drug court, where people get treatment in exchange for having their charges dismissed.

“Every time I go to a graduation at drug court, it brings a smile to my face,” he said. “I see people who have been clean for 500 or so days, and they’re reunited with their kids. They’ve paid their back child support. They have a job.”

Inside the men’s work realease room bathroom and shower area at Benton County Jail in Kennewick. Noelle Haro-Gomez Tri-City Herald

He envisions a system where people sign a contract with the prosecutor. If they decide to check out of the program before they’re finished, they’re brought back into the jail.

Hatcher’s initial plans call for converting some part of the jail into a treatment facility. Right now he’s eying the 26-bed work release center.

He plans to meet with state Department of Health officials to understand how to get the facility licensed and what challenges they will face in converting the facility. They’re also not sure how many spaces they would have after the conversion.

“We’re looking at what we could expect from walk-ins out of the community, so we have a pretty true understanding, because we do have an empty pod upstairs. If it was large enough, and it would warrant that, it could potentially utilize that space.”

He is confident the office will be able to make it work and doesn’t believe it would be cost-prohibitive.

While the sheriff’s office would provide the security and the building, they would contract with a private company for the medical services.

The Benton County Justice Center in Kennewick

Not a permanent solution

Hatcher’s entry into the drug treatment business isn’t one he wanted to make, and he hopes that he doesn’t have to stay in it permanently.

Once it’s set up, he hopes to bring in community partners to expand it and move it out of the jail.

“We learned a long time ago that we need to find innovative ways to address these challenges,” he told county commissioners. “This is another challenge the community has.”

He hopes to bring Franklin County commissioners on board so both sides of the Columbia River are involved in easing the region’s drug problems.

Cameron Probert covers breaking news and education for the Tri-City Herald, where he tries to answer readers’ questions about why police officers and firefighters are in your neighborhood. He studied communications at Washington State University.