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About 50 Sonoma County inmates soon will be bused to Santa Rita Jail in Alameda County, part of an effort by the Sheriff's Office to ease the load on overworked jail deputies.

"It's not something we want to do, but it's the best thing for the health and safety of our staff," Assistant Sheriff Randall Walker said.

Correctional deputies have worked an increasing amount of overtime in recent years because of short staffing brought on by layoffs and budget cuts during the recession, Walker said.

That was exacerbated in 2012 by a roughly 13 percent increase in the number of jail inmates as the result of prison realignment — the state's shift of lower-level criminals to county jails.

The Sheriff's Office also has struggled with two concurrent trends: A significant number of its correctional deputies are retiring or leaving the force, while the department has had difficulty filling vacant positions — many of them restored only in the past year as the county's budget has recovered.

The combination of factors has led to considerably longer work weeks for the jail's sworn personnel, driving up county costs for overtime and raising concerns about employee safety, sheriff's officials said.

"It takes a physical and emotional toll on the staff," Walker said. "When you're on your feet for 16 hours at a time, how long is it before you're out on an injury?"

Excessive overtime is not a new issue for the jail. The subject has surfaced periodically over the past decade. In 2004, a county grand jury report found that the jail was understaffed despite a recent hiring effort and that sheriff's officials needed to do more to stem a "vicious cycle" of burnout and injury.

At the time, Sheriff Bill Cogbill said that the report echoed concerns he had raised about staffing levels at the jail.

The county's deal to transfer local inmates to Alameda County was first reported this week by the Bay Area News Group.

Sonoma County payroll records over the past four years reveal the latest pattern in the jail's staffing expenditures. Overtime costs for the division's sworn personnel increased 65 percent from 2010 to 2013, from about $2.7 million to $4.4 million, according to a Press Democrat analysis of the records.

Overall salary costs for correctional deputies, sergeants, lieutenants, captains and temporary staff in those posts rose only by about 2 percent in the same period, from $21.96 million to $22.35 million, the payroll records show.

Staffing levels returned in 2013 to about what they were in 2010, with 228 sworn personnel in the jail division, including temporary employees.

The overtime, sometimes more than 60 hours per month per deputy, has led to an increasing number of correctional deputies unavailable for work because of injury, a recent Sheriff's Office report found.

In December 2013, 67 correctional deputies were unavailable for work, up from 39 in July 2012, according to the report, provided to the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in February.

Reducing the jail's inmate population by 50 people will allow officials to close one unit at the North County Detention Facility and reduce overtime by about 10 hours per person each month, Walker said.

Doing so will cost Sonoma County $85 per inmate per day, less than the jail's average daily cost of $135.

"There's some potential savings," Walker said. "But that's not why we're doing it. It's a staffing issue."

He said the Sheriff's Office currently is looking to fill 10 to 15 open deputy positions in the jail.

Depending on staffing levels after that, the transferred inmates could be brought back to the county jail, Walker said. He said that was his ultimate goal.

But it could be a while before that occurs because the jail's application and employee vetting process takes months to complete.

In the fiscal year 2012-13, the Sheriff's Office spent nearly $1.3 million on an intensive hiring effort. Out of 178 people considered for correctional deputy positions, 15 made the cut. Twenty new deputies had been hired by December 2013.

And because of a continued high turnover rate, the jail remained short-staffed, according to the February report. Currently, the jail has 134 correctional deputies, Walker said.

The hiring effort is expected to continue through 2014, costing an estimated $1.5 million in the current fiscal year.

Correctional deputies say the tight jail staffing is taking a toll on their ranks.

Deputy Doug DeVore said he has watched numerous colleagues in the mental health unit where he works take time off for injuries that include a broken nose, a muscle sprain or a knee injury suffered while working with sometimes-violent inmates.

DeVore, an upbeat, 6-foot 8-inch former basketball player, said he hasn't had to do so himself. Then he knocked on wood.

This week, he will work four "doubles," — 16-hour shifts — and one 12-hour shift. That's 36 hours of overtime in a week.

On one hand, he and other deputies like the overtime, for which they get paid time and a half. But deputies don't always get a say in when they work extra overtime. It's exhausting for the employees and their families.

"When I leave for work in the morning, I tell my son, 'I might see you tonight or I might not,'" DeVore said.

Walker agreed the workload was unsustainable.

Alameda County, meanwhile, finds itself with a different issue: empty jail cells.

The county's main Santa Rita Jail in Dublin currently has the capacity for about 1,000 extra inmates, Sheriff Greg Ahern said. That could be because of short-staffed law enforcement agencies making fewer arrests, he said. The jail can increase its efficiency and bring in extra revenue by housing inmates from other agencies, he said.

Walker said the inmates would be relocated "soon," but would not give an exact date for security reasons.

While 50 inmates will be transferred to begin with, the deal with Alameda County authorizes up to 100. Those chosen for the transfer are all male, minimum-security inmates with no gang ties or major medical or mental health concerns.

While at Santa Rita Jail, inmates will have access to programs and classes similar to those offered in Sonoma County so they can "improve their chances of not re-offending," Ahern said.

The jail also has created a computer-based scheduling system for visitors, to help ensure that people traveling from Sonoma County are able to see their family members once they arrive.

In an effort to keep inmates closer to their families, Sonoma County Sheriff's officials are talking with jails in adjacent counties, but so far none of those have had the extra space.

The Board of Supervisors approved the outsourcing deal Feb. 4 for a period of up to two years.

(Staff Researcher Janet Balicki contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Jamie Hansen at 521-5205 or jamie.hansen@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter at @JamieHansen.)

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