After the first two jail plans failed, county council hopes third answers concerns

The Whatcom County Council is once again moving forward with plans to look at building a new jail facility. They’re hoping to have a ballot initiative created in time for the 2020 general election.

The move comes after the council’s two previous attempts to build a new jail were rejected by Whatcom County voters.

At its Aug. 7 meeting, County Council member Barry Buchanan presented a resolution adopting a statement of public health, safety and justice facility planning principles, as well as a memo that outlined a tentative work plan for building a new jail facility. The council passed the resolution 7-0.

“This is a culmination of a long community conversation that’s been going on for decades on what to do about this old jail, how do we meet the community’s needs, how do we meet our public safety needs and how to wrap our arms around a holistic approach to incarceration,” Buchanan said at the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee meeting earlier in the day Wednesday.

Buchanan said prioritization of treatment is essential when it comes to building a new jail. The resolution passed by the council supports funding treatment options first, hopefully reducing reliance on the jail. It also updates several previous resolutions regarding incarceration, public safety and health passed by the council in the past few years.

In the memo Buchanan presented, he wrote that the current Whatcom County Jail is not set up to provide the services and treatments available in the 2010s and 2020s for those with mental health and addiction struggles. The facility, which was built in the 1980s, is also deteriorating and is unsafe when it comes to earthquake and fire hazards.

“There’s such a huge nexus between behavioral health and incarceration. One of the things we heard almost unanimously from our jail listening tours we did last spring was that the community prefers treatment over punishment as kind of a general statement,” Buchanan said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald Friday. “The thought is we can build a smaller jail that’s not as expensive and then have some funding to put into the treatment and diversion side of things.”

Buchanan said he’s been working on the plan with Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo for a little over a year.

“It’s really a ‘we heard you’ response to the public, and we want them to know that we too believe diversion, treatment and prevention are key to really good criminal justice reform,” Buchanan said Friday.

Buchanan had previously been holding informal talks with other council members and Elfo about the possibility of building a smaller jail downtown and a plan that focuses more on diversion, jail alternatives and treatment options.

A deputy escorts an inmate to a minimum security housing area in 2015, at Whatcom County Jail. The Whatcom County Council is moving forward with plans to look at building a new jail facility. They’re hoping to have a ballot initiative created in time for the 2020 general election. Staff The Bellingham Herald file

The jail plan

Buchanan’s memo outlines three phases, which include a needs assessment, a facility design and alternatives analysis, and exploring funding options before presenting it to the voters.

The first step of the project includes hiring a planner, whom Buchanan wants to be an impartial expert, to conduct a comprehensive analysis of local criminal justice policy, as well as public safety, behavioral health and facility needs. In addition to identifying the services and gaps with current behavioral health needs in the community, the planner would make predictions about the number of people who could be diverted from the jail and other services needed to further reduce incarceration. Jail size and design elements needed would also be determined by the planner, Buchanan’s memo states.

He said he hopes to have a request for the planner ready to be presented at the next council meeting on Sept. 10.

The second phase of the project would present two options to the community for location and size of a new jail. This could include reusing the current downtown facility, expanding the Irongate Work Center, or building a new downtown jail. This step would also include building and operational costs, according to the memo.

The third step would be the creation of the initiative that would go on the ballot, Buchanan said. It would also examine feasible funding strategies, he said.

Whatcom County Deputy Executive Tyler Schroeder said a new jail fund was created about 10 years ago, and there is about $1.7 million left in that account. Some of that money could be used for the plans outlined in Buchanan’s resolution, Schroeder said at Wednesday’s committee meeting.

Buchanan’s resolution and memo also stressed the need for community input and engagement this time around. He said there will be additional listening sessions throughout the county as this process continues.

The council previously tried to replace the downtown jail, but voters twice rejected a two-tenths of 1% sales tax to build a new facility, once in 2015 and again in 2017. In the meantime, millions are earmarked for jail repairs over the next several years.

Even if the 2020 ballot measure passes, Buchanan said the current downtown jail will need to be used for at least the next five years, so the current repairs that are scheduled will still happen.

During the criminal justice committee meeting, Buchanan said the first two ballot measures were essentially putting the “cart before the horse,” as the county hadn’t seen the benefits from diversion programs that had yet to be implemented.

Since some of the diversion and jail alternatives have started, such as the sheriff’s office’s mental health deputy and the expansion of Whatcom County District Court’s electronic home monitoring program, the incarceration rate at the Whatcom County Jail has dropped by 15%.

At the committee meeting, Elfo echoed Buchanan’s sentiment that the current jail does not allow for providing the best services available today, particularly when it comes to specialized housing for people with mental health and substance use disorder issues. Elfo said he supported the resolution and recommended making improvements at the work center to take the load off the current downtown jail in the interim.

“The important thing to note is that the proposal in its form now had unanimous council support,” Buchanan said. “We also have support from the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office, the Prosecutor’s Office and the administration, so we’re really trying to coalesce around a good plan.”

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.