No matter what voters decide this November on a measure to pay for a new jail, Sheriff Bill Elfo will shrink the number of people held in the existing jail.
The Whatcom County sheriff plans to formally remind the Bellingham City Council of this on Monday, Aug. 31.
“I just want to report to the citizens, to the council, to the mayor, that although the city has elected to make its own decision regarding its criminal justice responsibilities,” Elfo said, “I’m the sheriff of all the people both inside and outside of Bellingham and I’m going to do all that I can to ensure that effective safety and justice occurs.”
This should come as no surprise to council members, who have been warned for months by Elfo and County Executive Jack Louws that Bellingham’s jail contract expires at the end of December.
Short of signing onto a new jail payment plan that the county and other small cities have already agreed to, Bellingham’s inmates might be the first to get the boot when space runs out.
On the November general election ballot, voters will be asked to approve a new 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) to pay for a new jail on 39 acres in Ferndale. Half of the tax would go away after the bonds are repaid.
The jail payment plan asked the cities to give most of the revenue from that increase to the county to pay to build and run the facility.
On Wednesday, Aug. 26, Louws sent a letter to Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville informing her the county would not renew the city’s current jail agreement under the same terms.
The county and city should start meeting to figure out the transition plan, he wrote.
“This may include the County providing jail, booking and first appearance services for City misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor offenders on a limited and temporary basis,” the letter reads.
The county has to hold all felony offenders, regardless of which city they are arrested in, but the cities are responsible for the people they book on lesser charges.
Elfo and his staff have started looking at what it would take to bring the population numbers down., and do not plan to go back to the county’s previous strategy of turning away people booked on certain charges.
“When an officer arrests someone at 2 in the morning, I don’t want to leave the citizens in a lurch where the officer has nowhere to take them,” Elfo said. “On a transitional basis, I would propose we accept those people into the jail and at least hold them until a first appearance.”
After that court appearance, which usually happens within 24 hours, the city could be asked to move its inmates to another facility.
Limiting the population will depend on who is booked in at any time, Elfo said, but he wants to see the population as low as can be safe for the community.
“It’s an art, it’s not a science,” Elfo said of restricting the population. “It depends on what we have in there on any given day. ... But I would expect in the area of 212 to 220 in the main jail.”
The number of inmates in the main jail fluctuates from day to day, but according to snapshots of the jail population compiled by jail staff, the main jail had 220 inmates on Monday, Aug. 24. Back on April 6, the main jail had 244.
If the city chooses to contract with another jail, Elfo said he will do everything he can to facilitate that move. However, he is concerned that the behavioral health treatment and jail alternatives that Bellingham and community members are concerned about will be more difficult to deliver outside of a unified facility.
“Having them in one facility with one mental health team helps us laser point those limited but available resources in the best way possible,” Elfo said. “If we start fragmenting that and sending people hundreds of miles away, I have concerns about how effective that’s going to be.”
Since Bellingham has not signed the new jail agreement, the county has started looking at building about a 390-bed facility instead of the previously planned 521 beds, Elfo said. Bellingham’s inmates could be accepted on a space-available basis under a separate agreement.
“I really don’t think we’ll have a lot of surplus space,” he said. “If there was a plan where Bellingham had a change of heart and decided to participate, now would really be the time to do it before the design and architectural work commences.”
Bellingham’s council and the mayor’s office have maintained that the city is still willing to negotiate to be part of the jail agreement.
Though their concerns are varied, most of the city leaders have said they want to see more commitments to funding jail alternatives in the agreement. They also worry that the plan would max out that particular public safety tax for everyone in the county, funneling nearly all of the revenue to the jail even though the funds could be used for other safety programs.
“I’m open to continuing to negotiate in order to be able to support the jail initiative,” Linville said. “What’s on the ballot has nothing to do with the agreement.”
Until there is a sign that the county will reopen negotiations, city staff members are planning out options.
First, because “there’s no time between now and January to put a lot of alternatives into place,” Linville said, the staff is getting quotes from jails in other parts of the state that would be willing to house Bellingham inmates.
Second, the city will keep looking at jail alternatives, diversion programs, and creating some sort of emergency temporary shelter that would have fewer barriers to using it, Linville said.
How crowded is Whatcom’s jail?
Whatcom County Jail was built to hold 148 inmates. Shortly after its 1984 opening, it filled up, and the jail was retrofit with more bunks to hold up to 212 inmates. When those beds filled up, the county bought cots called “boats” to sleep even more people.
With all of those extra beds, inmates have been sardined into a variety of rooms in the facility: a recreation room has been converted to a dormitory-style lockup, a third-floor space first built for eight was joined with a storage room to hold 20, even a shower room now houses up to eight inmates.
The crowding issue is not limited to sleeping space.
On busy weekend nights, if more than two people under the influence of drugs or alcohol are booked and acting out of control, deputies have to improvise and find space to hold those people until they sober up. Sometimes that means temporarily leaving someone in a waiting area or a visiting booth for hours because the downtown jail’s two holding cell “drunk tanks” are full.