Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws and Sheriff Bill Elfo recently announced that they are moving forward with the process for siting and constructing a new jail. The area of the current jail - downtown Bellingham - is excluded from consideration. This perpetuates earlier mistakes. The executive accepts the misperception that accommodating jail needs requires building low and out - a sprawling facility, in every sense of the word. In fact, the Jail Task Force and its consultant examined jail needs, finding that the downtown location ought to be under consideration. The consultant notes:
[We're] not convinced...[a] horizontal version would be much (if any) cheaper to operate. [T]here are many other costs ... that result from or accrue to jail location (including transportation) which need to be included in the evaluation of options.
The rules established by the sheriff and executive guarantee a squandering of resources at a time when we can least afford it. As required by their criteria, the jail will be built "outside the downtown core." The only area that meets all criteria is north of the airport. That requires prematurely adding infrastructure, adding millions of dollars to the cost of the facility, while limiting the ability to negotiate for the real estate. The cost of extending the infrastructure falls disproportionately on Bellingham ratepayers.
The best incarceration siting has proximity to courts, to lawyers, to the social service providers who are required to serve the incarcerated population. It requires good transportation access, including public transportation, so inmates can retain and strengthen ties with the loved ones who can help reduce recidivism when they get out, and reduce anger and depression among inmates while they are imprisoned. This isn't just ethically right; numerous studies show that better visitation creates safer jails, safer for inmates and for the corrections personal who spend much of their lives among them. Moving the jail isn't just moving prisoners, it's moving the entire infrastructure supporting them. If this move is made, it will tremendously damage the restaurants and stores in downtown Bellingham, and fail to adequately serve the needs of the inmates. It's a classic lose-lose situation.
There are better solutions. A jail could be accommodated on parcels already owned by Whatcom County immediately north and south of the current jail. Architects have sketched designs showing an appropriate-sized facility could be located on either of those locations, at a height lower than the current courthouse. Once built, this facility would allow for renovating or rebuilding on the site of the current jail for future expansion. The human infrastructure of lawyers, courts, and human service providers would not be disrupted. Perhaps we could even take some of the savings and apply them to prevention and diversion.
Talking to a private-sector CEO, he was puzzled Sheriff Elfo didn't think like the private sector. Business would sort prisoners by risk, and deal with them accordingly. Building every cell to securely hold Charles Manson is overkill. In his estimation, a third of inmates require high security, another third moderate, and another third could be released with tracking bracelets. That way, he noted, you don't overpay for your needs. It reduces the size of the high-security facility to be built, and grants public investments in Irongate continued utility. Inmates convicted of minor, nonviolent offenses such as drug possession, can continue holding jobs, paying their own room and board costs, and use their income to defray monitoring expenses.
Spending tens of millions -- or more than $150 million, per the sheriff's original plan -- while "decreasing" the funding for proven deterrent and antirecidivism programs throws good money after bad. We should keep the jail where other court and human services are already located, in downtown Bellingham. A facility located north or south of the courthouse and at a lower height -- would be more cost-effective, more humane and more effective in the end in addressing the array of problems that accompany people who end up in our criminal justice system -- and therefore, be better for all of us, as members of this community.
We need a new jail. We need a right-sized, right-priced jail at the right location. The only positive of the current plan is that it replaces an old jail which needs replacing.
Dan Pike was the mayor of Bellingham from 2008 to 2011.