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State of the county: Whatcom executive touts jail-diversion programs

The booking area on the first floor of the Whatcom County Jail on Thursday, March 26, 2015 in Bellingham. County Executive Jack Louws wants to put a sales tax proposal on the fall ballot to cover some of the estimated $122.5 million cost of building a new jail. The current facility was built in 1983.
The booking area on the first floor of the Whatcom County Jail on Thursday, March 26, 2015 in Bellingham. County Executive Jack Louws wants to put a sales tax proposal on the fall ballot to cover some of the estimated $122.5 million cost of building a new jail. The current facility was built in 1983. The Bellingham Herald

In his annual state of the county speech, Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws on Tuesday, May 12, chose to focus on a variety of projects and accomplishments, rather than emphasize the biggest project of all: getting a new $122.5 million jail and Sheriff’s Office built.

The jail was just one of 14 projects now underway or planned for the future that were mentioned in Louws’ 11-minute speech, delivered to the County Council.

“The need for the new jail has been determined,” Louws said. “And I’m hopeful that the opportunity will be given to the voters to decide if it’s time to fix a long-term problem.”

The county plans to build a 521-bed jail in south Ferndale, to replace the jail at the County Courthouse and a low-security facility on Division Street. The existing jails are over capacity, and the courthouse jail has deteriorated to the point of becoming unsafe, county officials have said.

Louws originally intended to get a $97 million construction bond on the Aug. 4 ballot. The bond would pay for construction of the jail portion of the project, with the Sheriff’s Office coming out of existing county funds.

Council members let the deadline lapse for getting the bond measure on the August ballot because they wanted assurances from the executive that the county will commit to programs that would reduce the jail population, including a bigger crisis center for people with mental illness or addictions.

A majority of the council appears ready to put the measure on the November ballot.

One jail-diversion program already in place is succeeding in its first year, Louws said in his speech. The county’s mental health court, which started taking cases from Whatcom District Court and Bellingham Municipal Court in January, oversees mental-health care for defendants who qualify in order to keep them out of jail.

“The success so far is very encouraging,” Louws said. “We have participants who are achieving successes in their personal lives that previously were not attainable by them.”

Statistical evidence of the mental health court’s success is not available because the program is only a few months old and remains small, Prosecutor David McEachran told council earlier on Tuesday.

“I think we’ve got five people in (mental health court), so it’s very small at this point,” McEachran said.

Louws mentioned in his speech the county’s success at diverting juvenile defendants from jail. The number of juvenile cases prosecuted has declined 80 percent since 1999.

“More juveniles are being diverted than are being charged,” Louws said.

If charges against juveniles aren’t serious, they are resolved outside the courtroom even if they represent a juvenile’s second or third offense, McEachran told council Tuesday afternoon.

“If someone hits you in the head with a rock, you know, that’s something we’re going to take,” McEachran said. “If they throw something at your house, we divert cases.”

The comments by Louws and McEachran were part of an ongoing effort by county administrators to let the council know the county is already keeping the jail population down.

Before approving the jail and sending the bond to the ballot, council wants to establish a task force that will develop plans for a roughly $10 million crisis center as an alternative to jail for mental-health patients and for people with addictions. Some council members want additional measures taken to reduce the number of inmates, including possibly a county staff member who would call people to remind them of their court dates so they aren’t arrested and jailed later for missing their appearance before the judge.

Other points in Louws’ speech:

A multimillion-dollar project to replace the facade on the County Courthouse, which Louws said in January was necessary due to shoddy construction, won’t happen until 2020 or 2021.

Uncertainty about federal payments to the county, to compensate for the lack of property taxes on federally owned land, could require the county to tighten its budget later this year.

While tax revenues are “close to projections” so far this year, sales-tax revenue could decline due to fewer Canadian shoppers in the county.

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