Council: New Whatcom jail needs programs to help inmates

Whatcom County’s jail consultant, just given a new, $825,887 contract, said the next county jail must be designed “from the outside” to meet Ferndale’s standards for landscaping, lighting and fencing, among other requirements. But County Council members are eager to get inside and make sure there is enough room for programs that would help inmates stay out of jail.

“We need to invest in treatment,” said council member Pete Kremen, “so when (inmates) are let go, they are free of the chemical dependency problems that led them to their incarceration in the first place.”

Kremen spoke before he and the rest of the council voted unanimously Tuesday night, Sept. 30, to approve the contract with jail consultant DLR Group.

The new jail has been out of the public eye since November 2013, when the council agreed to spend $6.1 million for the jail site — a 39-acre property at LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale. A year ago, critics of the proposed jail were concerned that it would miss an opportunity to break the cycle of criminal behavior among inmates.

That concern was brought up again Tuesday by Joy Gilfilen, president of the Restorative Community Coalition of Bellingham. She told council members that keeping people out of jail costs much less than keeping them in.

“Why are we planning on failure instead of investing and planning on alternatives?” Gilfilen said.

Officials from DLR Group sought to reassure the council and the public that there was still time to plan jail alternatives — programs designed to prevent inmates from reoffending.

“There’s going to be plenty of opportunities ... for us as the design team to be able to hear what the concerns of the community are, to be sure that they get incorporated into the scope of the project,” said Bill Valdez of DLR Group.

Sheriff Bill Elfo for years has presented a two-part message about jail alternatives: Help for mentally ill people needs to improve in Whatcom County, although the county already has good programs in place for that population.

Elfo touted the county’s success at getting help for mentally ill inmates, especially after the current jail’s behavioral health program was expanded in February 2013 using sales-tax money set aside for mental-health treatment.

In the 11 months after the program was expanded, 86 percent of those booked into jail who needed mental-health services were helped within 24 hours, Elfo said.

But the sheriff also has said that setting aside a certain number of beds for mentally ill inmates, or adding enough clinic space in the new jail for mental-health treatment, wouldn’t entirely fix the problem. People who are mentally ill land in jail in the first place because the federal and state governments have cut funding for mental-health programs, he said.

“Many crimes and prosecutions could be prevented if community-based mental health services were available,” Elfo wrote with Anne Deacon, human services manager at Whatcom County Health Department, in an April 16 op-ed for The Bellingham Herald.

Council members agreed that good programs were in place, but that more could be done.

“Whatcom County is maybe not the best in the state, but we’re certainly among the best for alternatives to incarceration,” Kremen said, “but we have so much more to go.”

Like Elfo, Kremen blamed the state for cutting mental-health funding.

“The Legislature, with the governor’s blessing, pretty much washed their hands of having to deal with those afflicted with mental illness,” Kremen said.

The 0.1 percent sales tax Whatcom County approved in 2008 for mental-health programs is “an infinitesimal fraction of what it actually takes to adequately address mental-health problems,” Kremen said.

Whatever programs are put in place at the new jail, they could be paid for with a 0.2 percent sales tax increase that County Executive Jack Louws proposes the council send to voters in August 2015. That tax hike first would need to pay off jail construction costs, estimated at $87 million.

The ballot measure would require approval by a simple majority of voters and would be in addition to the 0.1 percent sales tax for new jail facilities approved by county voters in 2004. That money has been used in part to build the Division Street work center for low-risk inmates. The 2004 jail fund also helped pay for the planning and property costs associated with the new jail, Elfo said.

County officials intend to firm up the new jail’s design in order to apply to Ferndale for a permit in March. If the city grants the permit, the next step would be to sell the new jail to county voters a second time — and convince critics the county is serious about helping inmates with mental-health and substance-abuse problems.

“Over the next months, we do need to tell the story more completely of all the work that the Sheriff’s Department is doing, our Health Department and the community is doing, to help people so they don’t re-enter the correctional facility,” Louws said.