By January 2012, budget cuts had made staffing at the Summit County Jail tricky business. Drew Alexander, then sheriff, needed the round-the-clock presence of female deputies because of strip searches, showers, security and privacy issues. Because of seniority, most females deputies worked the day shifts.
Unfortunately, a rigid system evolved, under which female deputies only could seek jobs supervising female inmates. In a lawsuit filed just before the policy went into effect, a group of 21 female deputies argued they faced discrimination on the basis of their sex. In June, Steven Dettelbach, the U.S. district attorney for Northern Ohio, appropriately intervened on their behalf.
A proposed settlement, filed on Wednesday, would award the deputies $400,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. Most important, the county, which ended the jail staffing policy in July, has agreed to develop a new staffing plan that uses sex-based classifications, if at all, only when reasonably necessary to operate the jail.
Under the settlement, the plan must be submitted to the Justice Department and the plaintiffs for agreement and must include a detailed analysis of the number of deputies per shift and how they will be assigned. U.S. District Judge Sara Lioi still must sign off on the proposed settlement, which would last for at least five years.
Steve Barry, who took office as sheriff in January, has made proper staffing at the jail a top priority, for the safety of deputies and inmates. How much funding is available remains to be seen. At the same time, no matter what the financial pressures, job opportunities must not be denied female deputies on the basis of their sex.
The settlement leaves open devising the necessary flexibility to deal with the privacy and security issues of female inmates. What’s out is the kind of blanket plan Alexander implemented, which unfairly limited the ability of female deputies to apply for other jobs in the jail, such as booking and registering inmates and jail security.
In short, a better balance will be found between legitimate gender-based duties and the right of female deputies to pursue opportunities, free from discrimination. That’s a challenge in tight budget times, but it is one that must be met.