Taxpayers, yes, we do have a problem: A jail in deep crisis in Whatcom County; issues with mental health, addictions, trauma, joblessness, homelessness, a shrinking middle class, a stretched business class, overwhelming regulations and more.
Liabilities from complex social, economic and civic issues can’t be denied. They demand whole community solutions. Taxing ourselves to buy a $122.5 million regional jail and sheriff’s headquarters that won’t even open for four years doesn’t solve the crisis. It doesn’t pencil. It doesn’t address the underlying, root problems: Economic chaos.
We need restorative economics solutions to get people out of harm’s way at every level. We must reverse the trauma cycle, the poverty and rebuild our free enterprise economy safely.
Speaking as president of the Restorative Community Coalition, a non-profit that has been tackling these issues since 2006, we know this is new territory for our community leaders. And we must find ways to resolve the failures of a calcified system, not just bandage or mask the symptoms of self-destructive societal misbehavior.
Our jail planning process was flawed with no true needs assessment and limited transparency. Hundreds of citizen concerns were dismissed as “outside the scope,” and the Whatcom County Council was told no public hearings were needed to buy the land. That is simply not OK, for taxpayers pay the bills.
The coalition intervened by submitting a Phase 1 - Restorative Economics Action Plan to the Whatcom County Council on Dec. 29, 2014. We stood up for the taxpayers by raising awareness with the mayors, the tribes and other councils. On April 14, the Whatcom County Council held the first open public hearing. This allowed new critical information to surface about the dire condition of mental health services and revealed fresh resources.
With some community ingenuity, we believe our community working together can not only solve the immediate crisis but avert the need to tax the taxpayers.
Step 1: Review, remove and release the minimum security, non-violent and/or “legally innocent” people by reducing charges and increasing the use of restorative justice solutions like drug, teen, and mental health courts. Reducing red tape and inefficiencies that inflate jail bed stays reduces taxpayer costs.
Step 2: Stop incarcerating the mentally ill. We do not need a “de facto” social service agency. Statewide, the Supreme Court mandated corrections. Why not comply now? The county has millions earmarked for expanding mental health triage and crisis services facilities, so why not do that first – perhaps using St. Lukes South Campus or other facility? This removes this population from the jail system, reducing taxpayer costs.
Step 3: Protect sheriff’s staff. Move administration out of harm’s way; perhaps to the emergency management facility at the airport, or other unused facility. This allows space to do immediate repairs.
These three actions might cut the occupancy rate in half, reducing the need for $104 million tax increase and could redirect the $18.5 million from building a sheriff’s facility to direct implementation of these actions.
Step 4: Move maximum security offenders to humane, safe and secure quarters available at Division Street. In excellent shape, it’s fully secure and has easy access from I-5 and the north county. The city might allow us to expand the space to allow for more minimum security, work release options. Or, buy the old federal work release facility on Baker Creek, and allow space for up to 48 people with more reentry programs.
Step 5: Stop inflow and recidivism. Funding alternative housing solutions works, especially when it comes with case management, job reskilling, job training and functional literacy to help the homeless, those reentering society and others at risk to get on their feet. The coalition developed business plans for a RestoreALife Center, Phoenix Options, a Reclaim Store, a Freedom Farm, each designed for self-reliance. Together with social services agencies and municipalities, let’s implement 24/7 centers, business cooperatives and more.
Once the crisis is solved and people are safe, let’s consider building a reasonable 250-bed facility downtown on the land we own.