As Whatcom County prepares to replace the jail, it is important to update citizens as to the processes followed, decisions made to date and plans to proceed.
In April 2011, the Whatcom County Council sought recommendations for replacing the jail. It enacted a resolution establishing a "Jail Planning Task Force." The council tasked the 13-member task force with making recommendations that included the size, location and programming needed to replace the current jail.
The resolution provided for task force members to be appointed by the county executive and confirmed by the council. Citizen and government leaders with expertise in corrections, mental health, rehabilitation, law enforcement, county finance, architecture, construction, business, labor and experience in environmental, land use and neighborhood issues served on the task force.
The jail task force held 16 public meetings, solicited community input and received comments from citizens and stakeholders from throughout the criminal justice and behavioral health systems. It received professional assistance from the National Institute of Corrections and other experts. A very transparent process was followed. All agendas, minutes and reports were published on the county's website. Media were invited to attend all meetings.
The jail planning task force presented its unanimous conclusions to the council in a public meeting last April, reporting: "Due to overcrowding, life/safety and physical plant concerns in the main jail facility, Whatcom County needs a new jail." It described the need as "critical."
The task force reported that "while it was beyond its expertise to determine the precise capacity needed for a new jail, it concluded that the jail should operate at 80-85 percent of its design capacity and have capacity for 500-700 inmates."
The committee recommended that the county retain an experienced jail planner to conduct a needs assessment and refine inmate-capacity projections. The current jail system holds up to 470 inmates and offers little flexibility to adjust housing to meet fluctuating security and special housing needs.
The jail task force recommended that the jail be sited reasonably close to both Interstate 5 and the courthouse and be especially able to accommodate future expansion; designed to maximize operational efficiencies; and expand existing jail work programs.
Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws consulted with the council and me before implementing recommendations. Proposals were solicited from nationally recognized jail planning firms. DLR-Group, a leader in modern jail planning and design, was selected. Council accepted DLR's proposal and unanimously approved a contract to assess jail housing needs; recommend system changes to reduce future jail needs; and estimate costs. This work is proceeding, consistent with national standards and best practices.
The executive also convened a group of professionals and citizens with expertise in public facilities, land use, corrections, and law enforcement. He tasked this group with establishing site-selection criteria. Criteria were established and proposals were solicited. Eleven proposals were received, reviewed and evaluated. All proposals and evaluations were published on the county website and released to the media.
A 40-acre, industrially zoned and fully serviced site near I-5 in Ferndale was identified as most consistent with the selection criteria. DLR and other professionals are now conducting a preliminary assessment of the site to determine its viability. Prior to recommending council authorize to purchase any site, there will be a comprehensive review of environmental impacts, and opportunities for public comment.
Jail needs are influenced by population growth but are more heavily affected by factors such as decisions of the Legislature transferring incarceration responsibilities from state prisons to county jails; laws mandating arrests and minimum jail sentences; and large-scale resource reductions at the state and federal levels that dramatically limit evaluation and treatment options for mentally ill offenders.
Replacing the jail is a major undertaking that cannot be avoided. Life-safety issues, human conditions, potential taxpayer liability and extraordinary repair costs dictate that this process move forward. If the Ferndale site is ultimately selected, neighborhood safety and aesthetic and traffic concerns must be responsibly addressed.
Decisions regarding the location, size and financing for the replacement jail ultimately rest with the County Council. As your sheriff, I will continue to recommend a facility that is "right-sized" for our community's needs; designed for cost-efficient operations; and located at a site flexible enough to meet future requirements. I also will continue to advocate for improvements in our justice and mental health systems that can humanely and effectively reduce future jail needs.
Bill Elfo is Whatcom County Sheriff.