The Whatcom County Executive and Council have taken preliminary action needed to address jail and community safety. Frequently operating at over twice its design capacity, the jail is dangerously overcrowded. Little space is available for education, work and mental health programs. Failing infrastructure within the facility poses severe life-safety issues, significant liability exposure and continually requires costly repairs.
Last year, the County Council created a jail planning task force. After much work, research and public input, it recommended replacing the downtown jail with a 500-700 inmate, expandable facility, with space for treatment, education and work. The jail planning task force further recommended that the jail be located close to I-5 and within a reasonable distance of the courthouse.
The jail planning task force encouraged reducing future jail needs through the expansion of successful existing jail alternative programs and the creation of mental health treatment diversions. The jail planning task force advised the county to move quickly to hire a professional jail planner to assess and refine capacity projections and security needs. Acting on these recommendations, the executive and council approved sensible site selection criteria and are in the process of retaining a qualified jail planner.
Arguments have been advanced in favor of constructing a downtown jail next to the courthouse. Such a plan would require a vertical structure on prime downtown real estate that would limit options for long-term future growth. The downtown site would require expensive infrastructure including elevators and a parking garage as well as require costly and staff-intensive operational redundancies on each floor.
A downtown jail would be one of the most prominent structures in the city's art-theater district and be directly across from the Children's Museum. It would preclude other uses for valuable downtown property that might otherwise enhance economic development.
Jails are expensive to build and even more costly to operate. A horizontally designed jail with central observation points and modern technology will maximize operational efficiencies; improve safety and security; minimize staffing needs; and accommodate future growth.
A centrally located site near I-5 will allow all law enforcement officers to more quickly deliver offenders to jail and return to protecting their communities as well as enhance convenient access for volunteers, families and others who visit from throughout Whatcom County.
There is no plan to move the courthouse from downtown. Approximately 90 percent of court-related proceedings can be conducted from the jail through the use of video-conferencing that is being increasingly used in jails throughout Washington. This will significantly reduce the number of jail transports to all of the courts the jail serves. Video-conferencing also works well to supplement live visitation and allow inmates to remain better connected with their families.
Over the county's history, the jail has been at seven different locations. A horizontally designed facility on a sufficiently sized site will accommodate incremental expansion if it is needed. It will also allow the Sheriff's Office to expand inmate agricultural, forestry and salmon habitat restoration programs that help defray jail costs, instill work ethic, build skills and reduce recidivism.
Our community cannot build a jail it cannot afford but cannot afford to keep our downtown jail. With increases in the severity of violent crime and gangs, we cannot go back to the days of booking restrictions, when police could not book dangerous people, judges could not get warrants served, and offenders were not held accountable for their behavior.
We must meet the needs of the present while incorporating the flexibility we will need for the future. While final decisions on the size, cost and location of a new jail belong to council; they have started a prudent course for addressing these compelling public safety issues.
Bill Elfo is Whatcom County Sheriff.