Whatcom’s incarceration rate drops 15% from 2018 — here’s why ‘we’re seeing results’

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 incarceration rate across the Whatcom County corrections system has dropped by roughly 15% in the first three months of 2019, as compared to the same time last year, according to the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office’s 2019 quarterly reports.

The average length of stay for inmates at the Whatcom County Jail for the first three months of the year also has dropped from 12 days in 2018 to 8 days in 2019, according to the data.

Law enforcement, legal and criminal justice officials say jail alternatives and diversion techniques are responsible for the decrease and expect the trend to continue.

“We’re seeing results. The broad spectrum of solutions to reduce incarceration and provide treatment and provide alternatives to jail are working,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo told The Bellingham Herald.

Elfo said he believed the work of the sheriff’s office’s crisis intervention deputy, Jamie Collins, has created a way for people experiencing mental health or substance use disorder issues to be diverted to treatment, rather than be taken to jail. Elfo said the sheriff’s office will add a second crisis intervention deputy who will start in August.

While the decline in incarceration is good, Elfo said there’s still a need for the jail to be replaced so that more alternatives can be provided.

“I think there’s a lot of momentum throughout the criminal justice system and treatment centers and politically that will keep the programs fully functional and operating in a quality manner, while at the same time keeping our community safe,” Elfo said.

In the first three months of 2019, 29,944 bed days were used by the Whatcom County corrections system, including for inmates at both the downtown jail and the work center. In 2018, that number was 35,126. A bed day is any period of 24 hours that a person would otherwise spend in jail.

In February 2018, Whatcom County District Court began its electronic home monitoring programs for both pretrial and sentenced people. Since that time, 114 people have used the program, according to data provided by Bruce Van Glubt, administrator for District Court and Probation. Of those 114, 67% have been pretrial defendants.

In the first four months of this year, nearly 11,000 jail bed days were saved by the electronic home monitoring programs, according to data provided by Elfo. The programs have allowed people to be released at lower bail amounts or on their own personal recognizance. Van Glubt said he recently submitted a document to the County Council and executive asking for more funding for the program.

“A strong case can be made for the increased quality of life that this program offers defendants and families,” Van Glubt’s document states. “An electronic alcohol monitoring device allows defendants to remain in their home, with their family, and to keep their job.”

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Crisis Intervention Deputy Jamie Collins spends much of his day responding to behavioral health-related calls.

It costs $116, excluding outside healthcare, for a day in the Whatcom County Jail, according to Wendy Jones, chief corrections deputy with the sheriff’s office. The home-monitoring programs cost from $7.75 to $10.45 a day, Van Glubt said.

Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey said believes the decline in incarceration is due to several factors, including recent bail decisions recommended by his office.

The number of charges filed in Superior Court by the prosecutor’s office for the first six months of 2019 rose to 731 as compared to 667 in the same period in 2018, Richey said. But, the number of jail bed days used by Superior Court in the first three months of 2019 declined to approximately 17,300, as compared to more than 20,200 in 2018, according to the sheriff’s office’s quarterly report.

Richey said he believes the lower number of jail bed days used is because the courts are focusing more on alternatives than incarceration.

“I think we’ve had a change of attitude here in the office about how we handle cases. We’re charging things presuming people need treatment more than they need incarceration,” Richey told The Herald.

Richey said more jail alternatives and diversion programs are expected to start this year and next.

“We want to make sure people are held in jail when they need to be held and released whenever they don’t need to be held,” Richey said. “We’re making efforts now, and we’re expecting more options for people in the future, rather than incarceration.”

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.