Whatcom sheriff asks everyone to stop booking people in jail for minor crimes

The “outdoor” recreation area at the Whatcom County Jail is shown Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham.
The “outdoor” recreation area at the Whatcom County Jail is shown Thursday, March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Earlier this year, Bellingham was restricted from putting people in Whatcom County Jail for certain lesser crimes. Now, everyone is being asked to limit how many people they put behind bars.

In mid-October, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo notified all agencies that use the downtown jail that despite best efforts, the facility still was overcrowded. He has asked agencies to voluntarily avoid booking people unless they are required to or it is a matter of public safety.

The new “jail population control measures” are more lenient than the booking restrictions placed on Bellingham in July.

Elfo has asked that people not be booked on suspicion of crimes such as driving with a third-degree suspended license, or “other offenses that might alternatively be handled with a citation.” When the jail population hits 212, agencies are asked not to book people for certain minor crimes.

The jail staff still plans to accept people arrested on suspicion of assault, for domestic violence offenses that require arrests, and for driving under the influence if the arrested person is an imminent threat to public safety or has a long history of failing to attend court appearances, according to an Oct. 21 memo.

I want to stress too, that anytime an officer calls and really needs to get someone in the jail and there’s no other option, we get them in.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, on jail population control measures

Additionally, under “extraordinary circumstances” or if an imminent threat to public safety exists, an officer can ask the sergeant on duty at the jail for an exception to the rule. If they can’t agree, higher-ups can be called to make an exception, Elfo said.

“We’ve asked for everyone’s cooperation, and thus far we’ve gotten it,” Elfo said.

The limits are not in place if the population is under 205.

“We don’t like doing it but our duty to operate the facility in some semblance of a constitutional and safe manner trumps the ability to keep Bellingham off booking restrictions,” Elfo said.

City discussion

The new measures were discussed with Bellingham City Council on Oct. 7, during a budget session in the mayor’s boardroom.

The city’s municipal court staff told the council about their needs for the upcoming biennial budget, including money to pay for a public defender to serve in Yakima, where the city has been keeping many of its inmates.

That has mostly been working out, but, “the hard part was when the jail wanted to send pretrial people,” Court Administrator Darlene Peterson told the council. “We have to do adjudication of their case long distance, unless it’s a trial.”

The city had to set up a video conferencing system in Yakima to hold hearings with people, and while the public defender’s office has been handling cases so far, the situation hasn’t been ideal, Peterson said.

Municipal Court Judge Debra Lev had initially issued an order preventing the city from sending anyone to Yakima County Jail unless they already had been convicted of a crime. But when Bellingham was put on booking restrictions, the city opted to switch to the jail contract other cities were using to avoid restrictions, which included a requirement to transfer pretrial inmates. Lev lifted her order.

Council member Dan Hammill asked Lev for her thoughts considering the new limits.

“I didn’t want any of our pretrial defendants going to Yakima,” Lev said. “I thought it was important to keep pretrial cases here, but push comes to shove, we were told we wouldn’t be restricted if I allowed people to go to Yakima. And lo and behold, on Oct. 26, we’re on restrictions again.”

Council member Michael Lilliquist said it felt like the county was moving the goal posts.

Lev said the booking limits meant people might be out in the city with repeat criminal behavior, violating orders, with a pattern of not being held accountable, without consequences.

Other actions to limit bookings

In addition to sending inmates to Yakima, the city has been keeping people on electronic home monitoring.

Elfo said his deputies are issuing citations for minor crimes and even referring some minor felony cases, such as simple drug possession, to the prosecutor’s office to issue a summons.

Elfo has asked everyone not to serve minor warrants, giving the example that in October, Bellingham booked someone for a garbage violation.

“We are not holding everybody’s feet to the fire. The contract states they have to get people out within (hours) of their first court appearance, but sometimes it takes them a couple of days to transport them to Yakima,” Elfo said. “We’re holding off on that to try and make everything work as smoothly as possible.”

Unlike Bellingham and other cities, the county does not have a contract to send its inmates to any other facility, but the county does transfer people who meet the criteria to the minimum security work center on Division Street, Elfo said.

The county also is looking at referring people to the agency Bellingham uses to keep people on electronic monitoring, and Elfo said he has asked for a budget to waive fees for the program to be added to the county’s next biennial budget.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil