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Whatcom council members say they’ve listened and have a new plan to replace jail

A look at Whatcom County Jail

Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey has said that bail reform is also a way to reduce incarceration rates, which would ease pressure on the aging Whatcom County Jail.
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Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey has said that bail reform is also a way to reduce incarceration rates, which would ease pressure on the aging Whatcom County Jail.

The possibility of building a new, smaller jail facility in Bellingham is being informally discussed by Whatcom County Council members after voters twice rejected proposals to replace the current facility.

Council member Barry Buchanan said he’s been talking to Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and other council members about a plan that focuses on diversion and jail alternatives and would include a smaller downtown jail. More resources would be dedicated to treatment options for those struggling with mental health or substance use disorders, as well as educational and vocational resources, Buchanan said Tuesday in an interview with The Bellingham Herald.

Buchanan said he expects to formally announce his plan at one of the County Council’s meetings in July. Buchanan, who is the chair of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee, said he expects the plan to be more of a framework.

“We heard you. That’s the loudest message I want to broadcast. We heard what happened at the polls and with the two proposals,” Buchanan said. “We really want to engage the public a lot this time around, so we’re continuing the conversations. We want to bring the public along with us at the same speed, rather than drawing it out this time around.”

Voters rejected a two-tenths of 1% sales tax in 2015 and 2017 to build a new facility. In the meantime, millions are earmarked for jail repairs over the next several years.

During listening tours held on the issue, many people came forward to say they wanted the county to focus on diversion techniques and jail alternatives, and that they would prefer to keep the facility in Bellingham.

“I’ve been thinking I wanted to do something when we formed the jail listening tour. I knew something needed to be done,” Buchanan said. “We can’t keep hemorrhaging money like we are on the existing facility. We won’t be able to do anything, it will paralyze us.”

Buchanan said his plan is a combined public health and public safety initiative and he wants to be sure to include a focus on treatment options in this proposal.

“The one clear message we heard on our listening tour, and it was all across the political spectrum and the geographic spectrum, is the community thinks it’s critical to prioritize treatment over punishment when we can. That message was loud and clear to me,” Buchanan said.

Buchanan said he believes the downtown facility needs to be replaced and is leading the change effort.

“It became important to me to get it done sooner rather than later,” he said of his proposal. “The amount of money we’re putting into the existing facility is staggering. The longer we wait, the more money goes down the rat hole. That’s why I feel it’s important to move on it.”

Elfo said at the June 18 Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting that he would support building a smaller downtown jail facility. He said while jail alternatives and treatment options are increasing in the county, the downtown facility still needs to be replaced because it’s a hazard.

“If Council decides to move forward to replace the jail with a downtown facility, I will support the plan and do all I can to ensure its success in providing a safer and more humane system of justice here in Whatcom County,” Elfo said in an interview with The Herald.

Council members Rud Browne and Todd Donovan said they too believe the current Whatcom County Jail needs to be replaced. Browne said it is a “horrible facility” and that it lacks adequate space to provide treatment options or educational or vocational programs. He said it’s not safe in terms of a fire or earthquake hazard, and that people aren’t able to adequately be separated if needed.

“It is absolutely essential that we replace the existing facility and that’s a completely separate issue to the size of the facility. Irrespective of what the size is, we have to replace the facility,” Browne said. “We have to replace it because the existing one is a death trap and we have to replace it because it’s simply an unacceptable environment for anyone to be in.”

Browne said in the meantime, the repairs that are happening at the current jail are a logistical nightmare with the need to move inmates to allow repair crews to work during restricted hours. He said it’s been a balancing act between spending money on repairing the current facility to make sure it’s safe, but also to avoid wasting money if there will be a new facility in the future.

“It’s like trying to change the engine of an aircraft while it’s in flight. It’s awful,” Browne said.

Donovan said many incarceration reduction and diversion programs have started and those are tangible things that the council can show the voters as steps they’ve taken instead of building a new facility.

“We asked for the wrong things the first two times. Now we can come back with a smarter, smaller jail,” Donovan said.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.
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