Okanogan County and Douglas County have been in discussions over potential changes to a contract that provides for housing Douglas County inmates in the jail in Okanogan, prompted in part by Douglas County’s concerns over available beds and corresponding costs during the COVID pandemic. Douglas County doesn’t have its own jail.
The two counties have had the same agreement since June 2017, which provides for 40 beds per day. Douglas County pays for all 40 beds regardless of whether they use them, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said. The per-bed rate is adjusted annually in concert with the consumer price index. The current rate is $61.22 per bed.
But for public health reasons during the pandemic – to protect other inmates and staff – the jail hasn’t been booking inmates from either county for minor offenses such as driving with a suspended license or failure to pay a fine, Hawley said. That approach has also ensured the jail is operational so it can house anyone who does pose a risk to the public.
Jail is mandatory for anyone who is a safety risk, including anyone charged with assault, domestic violence or impaired driving. When there’s a public-safety risk, they always find a way to keep someone in custody, Hawley said.
The Douglas County commissioners have raised concerns about the current booking regulations and the lack of a guarantee that all inmates will be housed here, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover told the Methow Valley News last week. Douglas County proposed amending the contract so that they pay only for the number of beds they use each night, rather than the flat 40-bed rate, he said.
They’re working on a cost analysis that accounts for all components of the contract, including transportation and facilitation of court hearings, Hover said.
Douglas County has raised issues about not being assured that all inmates will get a bed and that they’re paying for beds they’re not using, Hover said.
Although Okanogan County gets about $900,000 per year from Douglas County, it costs $4 million to operate the jail, and Okanogan County takes on all liability, Hover said.
Other rules also place restrictions on jail space. Certain suspects – for example, those charged with domestic violence or homicide – can’t be housed with other inmates because of a risk of assault, Hawley said. Some regulations govern where in the jail inmates can be housed, depending on the security level and number of beds in different sections. “It’s not as simple as bringing them in and dropping them off,” he said.
In addition to housing the inmates, the contract provides for medical care, transportation and all basic needs, Hawley said. Okanogan County makes regular trips to the Chelan County Regional Justice Center to pick up inmates who’ve been held there temporarily after their arrest, Hawley said.
Because jury trials have been suspended on and off throughout the pandemic, many of the inmates at the jail are still awaiting trial for serious offenses, Hawley said.
The annual average for beds occupied by Douglas County inmates has ranged from 30.41 in 2017 to 41.83 in 2018, with most years in the mid-30s, according to Hawley. In 2020, Douglas County used an average of 39.41 beds and, in 2021 – with the most recent figures covering the 11 months through November – it was 30.72. The contract provides for an additional fee if Douglas County needs more than 40 beds.
The jail census changes daily but, as of last week, there were 85 people in custody, 58 from Okanogan County, 26 from Douglas County, and one through a contract arrangement with another jurisdiction, Hawley said.
The jail, like many across the country, is also facing staffing issues and finding it hard to attract applicants, Hawley said.
The two counties are still negotiating and expect to consider any changes in the next couple of weeks, Hover said. The contract allows either party to terminate it with a one-year notice.