Whatcom County Council to hear recommendations for long-delayed jail

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Members of the Whatcom County Council are waiting to hear what an upcoming report will recommend for county public safety and replacing the aged jail facility in downtown Bellingham.

These issues have been debated, dissected and discussed since the early 2000s, with key ballot measures rejected twice by Whatcom County voters. The Stakeholder Advisory Committee, comprising 38 voting representatives from among local government and law enforcement, Native American tribes, behavioral health and social service providers, criminal justice advocates and individuals with lived experience in the criminal justice system, drafted the Whatcom County Justice Project Needs Assessment report.

Satpal Sidhu, the Whatcom County executive, Wendy Jones, the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office corrections bureau chief, and Barry Buchanan, Whatcom County Councilmember, shared their perspectives on the current situation and past history.

BP: What makes it difficult to operate the current Whatcom County jail?
Wendy Jones: First and foremost, the facility itself. Completed in 1984, it is old, worn out, and too small for the community it serves. The design and construction did not anticipate the changes in laws and technology that have occurred since the late 1970s. This has resulted in the jail being out of compliance with federal laws such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and state and local building codes.

Additionally, there were changes in the state criminal code that resulted in offenders who had been sent to the Washington State Department of Corrections remaining in county jails to serve their sentences.

This has contributed to the second factor, which has been the increase in the number and complexity of the offender population. Currently, we have lost 50 beds due to the number of offenders who are either too vulnerable or violent to have a roommate.
The last difficulty is staff shortages. We are currently down eight deputies.

BP: What alternatives is Whatcom County using to deal with the current conditions at the jail?
WJ: The jail is currently on booking restrictions as the first step to control the population. These restrict the types of crimes people can be booked for to crimes that are considered “crimes against person.” Most often, these will be offenses involving things such as assault, robbery and residential burglary.

We are working with the rest of the criminal justice system to try and shorten the amount of time people are in jail. Due to the high number of people being held on pretrial felony charges, offenders are staying in jail longer, waiting for their cases to be settled.
We are also in the process of negotiating a contract with one of the other jails along the I-5 corridor for additional beds. That presents its own challenges with transporting the offenders to court.

BP: We’ve heard that the county has had difficulty filling vacant corrections positions. Do you think that the conditions in the jail are a factor here?
WJ: We have had some difficulty in filling positions, and the conditions in the jail have not helped. The staff shortages have added another layer of difficulty to deputies. They are working significant amounts of mandatory overtime, which cuts into time with family and the ability to decompress.

BP: How does the limited capacity in the current jail impact our community?
Satpal Sidhu: We built this jail in the early 1980s, and our population was about 110,000. Now we are close to 230,000.There was an effort to build a low-security facility — the (interim) work center on Division Street, which we did, opening in 2006. Whatcom County also has an electronic home detention program as an alternative to jail.

So, this is really a huge issue, with the population almost doubled, and we still have facilities with marginal improvements.

BP: How much is the county spending on jail upkeep and maintenance?
SS: In 2004, the public voted a 0.1% sales tax and that has been collected since then. We have spent $4-6 million in just basic improvements, the locks, the doors, some mechanisms (for the 1984 facility).

BP: Voters approved a criminal justice facility tax in 2004, and many believed that money would be spent on a new jail. Where has that money gone?
SS: I think this question is lingering in people’s memory that the jail tax was misused, or it was diverted to the general fund, and questions are being asked. I think that it’s fair for the public to ask what happened to that money.

I think we have an account of all, every penny of that money and where that money was spent. I ask people to make their judgement and then, based on that, we can have a discussion on whether it was diverted or abused. But it was money for public safety, and it was only used for public safety.

BP: Why do you think that the 2015 and 2017 jail funding ballot measures for a 0.2% sales tax increase to fund a new jail failed? What is different now?
Barry Buchanan: I think in 2015, people just didn’t understand the proposal well. But 2017 was an attempt to try to get the same issue back on the ballot. I think that was a failure just to get out to the public what the issues were, what the needs were.

I think the difference today is that we have implemented a lot of diversion programs. We have the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion and the Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement programs, and now the Alternate Response Team for situations involving people with complex needs, including mental health or substance use issues.

SS: Several reasons. One of the main reasons is the voters felt that it was not a coherent plan.

People worried about the size of the jail, the location of the jail, the amount of construction. The messaging to the community to justify how the money would be spent was not clearly defined.

BP: The Stakeholder Advisory Committee has been conducting a needs assessment. How has this process been different from past efforts to define the community’s needs?
SS: We built a new crisis stabilization center with 32 beds for mental health support and substance use detoxification. People with behavioral health or drug problems, they don’t need to be in jail. People who are poor don’t need to be in jail just because they are poor. People need treatment. People need rehabilitation.

BB: The difference was that the efforts that were done before this were by a contractor interviewing a few people who would come up with their take on what they thought the community needs were.

The big difference is we (the Stakeholder Advisory Committee) are trying to make sure the public is educated and not operating in a vacuum like they were before.
We’re making a really concerted effort to get a sense of what the public needs are. The needs assessment process included meetings involving the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force and its subcommittees.

The committee had a public town meeting in November. This was part of a community survey with listening sessions, targeted outreach and interviews.
About 100 people attended the meeting, both on Zoom and in person, at the Whatcom County Council chambers. We didn’t hear anyone saying we don’t need a new jail.

BP: What parameters are being defined through the needs assessment?
BB: I think we’re doing a good job of honing the message through the needs assessment, honing it into needs and gaps that exist. It looks at the health and public safety needs and mental health needs and makes recommendations to improve community public safety concerns.

SS: About the location, I think the committee has two or three locations in mind. The Ferndale one is still being considered. We are waiting for what the committee’s thoughts are.

BP: There has been talk of a vote in 2023 on funding for a new criminal justice facility. When will we know more about this and what exactly is being proposed?
BB: The hope is that in February the Stakeholder Advisory Committee will get to Whatcom County Council to give the report and recommendations. After that, we would try to get everything honed down to what we think a ballot measure might look like.

SS: We believe public input is vital. This will be one of the largest capital undertakings in the county. We would like to have a robust public conversation in Council chambers.All eight mayors in Whatcom County, including the city of Bellingham, have written a letter that they unanimously support the work of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee, and they unanimously support that we do need a new justice and safety facility.

BP: What do you think are the key challenges to gaining public support for a new criminal justice facility?
SS: There are many challenges. There are two separate issues: what happens inside the jail and what happens outside the jail. People expect, and rightly so, that we should have outside facilities, outside services, readily available for people with drug or behavioral health issues.

All the people in jail are not just there for behavioral health, mental health or drugs. There are genuine criminals; there are hardened people who are a threat to society and must be taken care of.

Regarding the cost of construction: A report in 2020 from the Whatcom County Comprehensive Law & Justice Planning Project projected a need for more than 700 adult beds, based on incarceration rates, population growth and other factors.
This is not a partisan issue. This is a community issue. I think we can come up with a compromise that meets most of the needs of our community. Not all the needs, but, working together, we can solve a lot of problems. ■

Answers have been edited.

To watch, “Tour of the Whatcom County Jail Video” go to: https://youtu.be/HOVtzutn2zU
This video of the downtown jail was created for the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the Whatcom County Justice Project. For more information, please visit www.whatcomcounty.us/justice.