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Jail staff shortages dire

by KAYE THORNBRUGH
Staff Writer | March 1, 2022 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — Local leaders say the answer to staff shortages at the county jail is obvious, if not easy.

“We need to pay a competitive salary, so people can earn a living wage here in Kootenai County,” said Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris.

Between the 17 positions that are currently vacant and the 14 new hires still getting up to speed, the jail is down about 30% of the staff it needs to operate.

Those numbers are always changing — another employee resigned Monday.

It’s a vicious circle.

Staffing shortages due to low wages force detention deputies and control room operators to work overtime, sometimes 40 to 60 hours in two weeks. Frequent overtime causes burnout, leading to more resignations and more overtime for the employees left behind.

“The fatigue factor is a new dynamic,” Norris said Monday in an editorial board meeting with The Press.

In fact, he said, the strain of an understaffed jail is bad enough that some employees are quitting and taking lower-paying jobs, while others leave for different industries that offer better pay.

Pay for detention deputies starts at $20.71 an hour, with raises in the first year and benefits.

Control room operators reportedly make $16 an hour, while booking clerks and jail technicians start around $14.52.

Without an increase in wages, KCSO will likely continue to struggle to fill vacant positions.

KCSO doesn’t necessarily have to pay what other agencies pay, Norris said, but it needs to come close.

Kootenai County Commissioner Bill Brooks put it plainly.

“We need to compete with Spokane,” he said.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office made headlines last year for spending $12,000 on electronic billboards in Times Square, advertising $15,000 hiring bonuses to lateral officers.

Meanwhile, a recent Spokane County Detention Services listing for a corrections officer offered a wage of up to $63,000 per year, as well as a hiring bonus of up to $7,500.

Brooks advocates for increasing pay for detention deputies by $5 an hour across the board as a start. He said commissioners can make that happen now, with the county’s current budget.

“I think we need to realign what we’re spending now,” he said. “Having good pay and great benefits are foundational.”

In the meantime, Norris said, KCSO is doing what it can to lower the jail’s population and make daily operations more manageable for a smaller staff.

That means contacting judges to ask that they consider issuing citations for nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, rather than arrest warrants, and asking county prosecutors to do the same.

“Who can we release this week?” Norris said. “Who can we give a citation?”

Even that won’t totally alleviate the strain, however.

In years past, misdemeanor offenders made up the bulk of the inmate population. Now more than 80% of those incarcerated at any given time are facing felony charges.

Norris said the jail isn’t a 40-hour per week operation. It’s like a small city that operates 24/7, with countless moving pieces: food, medical care, laundry and more.

Staff shortages create an unsafe environment for inmates and deputies alike, as well as the community as a whole.

“It’s impacting public safety,” Norris said.

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