Whatcom County Council: Need to plan for jail, alternative programs at same time

Whatcom County Council could ask staff members who are currently planning for a new jail to simultaneously develop programs to keep people with mental illness from being incarcerated.

More than 50 people gave their take on the proposal for a new Whatcom County Jail during a nearly three-hour public hearing at the council meeting Tuesday night, April 14.

Over the last several weeks, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws has met with city councils and mayors around the county to plug a jail funding plan that would raise the local sales tax by 0.2 percent. That would add 20 cents to the sales tax for a $100 purchase.

If the various city councils, and the County Council, approve the plan, it would need to go to a public vote. Louws has been pushing to get the plan on the August primary ballot, but unless negotiations are finished in the next few weeks, it wouldn’t go to a vote until the general election in November.

The cities have pushed for a written agreement that the county will dedicate money to a mental health triage facility.

Responding to feedback he’d gotten in recent weeks, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said before the hearing that as sheriff, he regularly sees the effects of untreated mental illness.

“I’m glad these conversations have focused on a need for system-wide improvements,” Elfo said. “Decades of policies at the state and federal level have made our jails de facto mental institutions. ... I agree (alternative) programs need to be maximized, and people who do not need to be in jail should be diverted to community programs if possible.”

During the hearing, Chris Phillips, director for community affairs at PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, requested a planning process for behavioral health diversion and treatment programs, which he said PeaceHealth staff would participate in if the county gets things going.

“Our physicians and nurses know how important a new jail is to inmates and staff,” Phillips said. “We remain committed to being part of the solution, and we will participate in a (diversion planning) process that will increase the likelihood of this passing on the ballot.”

Current and former jail employees spoke out in favor of getting a new jail as soon as possible, so their “work family” would not continue to spend day and night in a potentially dangerous building, located at 311 Grand Ave.

Commenter Paul Myers, chairman of the Whatcom County Civil Service Commission and a retired airline pilot, said he’d observed a fire drill at the jail a few years ago and it had reminded him of watching all the passengers get off a 757 from a single door at the front of the aircraft.

“All prisoners and staff have to go out a door at the far end of the jail,” Myers said. “You have all those prisoners moving for one set of stairs, all trying to get out. ... This is a time bomb, the fuse is lit, and nobody knows how long that fuse is.”

The National Institute of Corrections has evaluated the current building and determined a fire or other emergency, such as an earthquake, would result in “catastrophic” loss of life.

Between the main jail, which opened in 1984, and a work center in the Irongate area that opened in 2006, the jail has a capacity of 298 to 362, but the average daily population in 2014 was 403 people.

About 20 percent of those who spoke at the hearing said they wanted the county to look at restorative justice programs, which use a model of mediation between victims and offenders who may work out restitution agreements amongst themselves. Those meetings can happen outside of a courtroom, and a local group called the Restorative Community Coalition hopes to help create a community program here, said organization president Joy Gilfilen and the group’s founder, Irene Morgan.

“We are sitting at the precipice right now in Whatcom County where we can write an actual plan to reform the system,” said Gilfilen, who also requested the coalition be given time to give the council a full presentation on its plan.

The coalition agrees there is a need for a new jail, Morgan said, but doesn’t agree with the current proposal for a 521-bed facility in Ferndale.

After the hearing, some of the council members said they’d heard a lot of comments that the community needed both a jail and alternatives that would keep people out of jail or give them treatment they can’t or shouldn’t receive in jail.

“The biggest takeaway for me tonight is let this not be a divisive issue in our community,” council member Satpal Sidhu said. “I think we collectively can find a solution to all these issues that have been raised.”

Council members Barbara Brenner and Carl Weimer said they think the county can work on both issues.

“We have a lot of smart people that work for this county, and I truly believe we can walk and chew gum at the same time,” Weimer said. “Next week we’ll be putting our nose to the grindstone.”