A task force focused on improving Whatcom County’s ability to keep people out of jail has presented its early research and an outline of the work it plans to do this year.
The Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force was created by the Whatcom County Council in June 2015 in the midst of countywide discussions about replacing the county jail.
With the approval of small cities but without the full support of Bellingham, the county put a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to pay for a new jail on the ballot in November, and voters rejected it.
Though crowding and aging infrastructure at the current jail remain issues, the task force is primarily focused on finding the best ways to keep people from going into, staying in or returning to the jail.
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“Regardless of that jail, trying to divert is a laudable goal — that really is our focus,” explained Jack Hovenier, co-chair of the task force, as he presented to the County Council Tuesday afternoon, Feb. 23.
Specifically, the group is focused on properly addressing people with mental illness and chemical dependency and minimizing the time that people who are not dangerous spend behind bars waiting for their trials to take place.
Alternatives cost less than incarcerating someone. Whether you’re coming at this from an issue of humanity or of economics, there are advantages.
Jill Bernstein, co-chair Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force
Hovenier and fellow co-chair Jill Bernstein presented the group’s “Phase One Report” to the council Tuesday.
The report outlines information three sub-committees of the 24-member group compiled and started to explore in the months since the task force was formed, including details about existing county and regional programs.
“We don’t have a luxury of time to sit back and think for a long period of time because the issues are with us right now,” Bernstein told the council. “But we learned we don’t have to invent the wheel. This is part of a national discussion.”
During the next phase, members will focus research on alternatives, including possible costs, and develop specific recommendations to present to council by November.
“Alternatives cost less than incarcerating someone,” Bernstein said. “Whether you’re coming at this from an issue of humanity or of economics, there are advantages.”
For the report, the justice system team described programs that could be used or expanded, such as:
▪ calling people to remind them of court dates;
▪ allowing officers to divert nonviolent offenders to services rather than booking them into jail;
▪ using GPS or other electronic home monitoring;
▪ and hearing cases through various therapeutic courts.
It costs about $98 per day to hold someone in Whatcom County Jail while they wait for their trial. The county-supervised electronic home monitoring program, currently only for sentenced inmates, costs about $39 per day, according to the report.
Right now offenders have to pay for that alternative, which could preclude some people from applying.
The task force’s justice committee “will consider, in the future, whether Whatcom County should make EHM devices available at no cost to indigent individuals or otherwise subsidize use of EHM,” the report states. “Poverty should never be a reason to hold otherwise eligible people in jail, particularly given the high cost of incarceration.”
With City Council approval Monday, Feb. 22, Bellingham now plans to offer electronic home detention or monitoring to both pre-trial and sentenced inmates through a private nonprofit, and subsidize the cost of the program for those who need it.
As for therapeutic courts, Whatcom County has drug and mental health courts, but neither is used across the entire court system.
Drug court is used only for Superior Court cases, and only serves half the number of people it has capacity for.
Mental health court is used only in District Court and Bellingham Municipal Court.
Triage facilities, behavioral health
The task force’s triage facility team reported that the current crisis triage facility located near the minimum security work center on Division Street will need to be expanded.
Currently, Whatcom Community Detox provides services for up to eight people withdrawing from drugs and/or alcohol, and the Whatcom Crisis Triage Center has resources for up to five people in a behavioral health crisis, according to the report.
Though they share a location, the two services are separate in funding, providers and name but share the goal of preventing hospitalization or incarceration of people in crisis.
The type of detox services offered are “sub-acute” or “social,” which means intensive medical monitoring is not provided, and the mental health diversion is voluntary and only for short stays of up to five days.
PeaceHealth St. Joseph hospital also has a 20-bed secure, inpatient behavioral health unit, which can take involuntary admissions.
The triage team recommends developing two, 16-bed units joined by a common entrance. One facility would offer medical or social detox, the other would treat people in mental health crisis, including those who are dealing with both issues.
Noted by the committee is the scheduled 2018 closure of the Pioneer Center North 141-bed inpatient treatment facility in Skagit County; 22 percent of its patients come from Whatcom County. Also noted in the report is the Medicaid funding requirement that facilities be limited to 16 beds each.
“We know enhancing that facility won’t be the be-all, end-all, but it will provide another tool for first responders to have another alternative that isn’t jail or the hospital for people in crisis,” Bernstein said.
The behavioral health sub-committee also examined the two existing facilities, in addition to other existing behavioral health programs such as:
▪ crisis intervention team training for first responders;
▪ Bellingham’s community paramedic who pairs people who have a high number of 911 calls with needed social services;
▪ a crisis prevention and intervention team from North Sound Mental Health Administration that refers people to the crisis triage facility;
▪ the jail’s behavioral health program and re-entry services;
▪ therapeutic courts;
▪ and supportive housing.
In the coming months, that sub-committee will focus on reviewing the existing programs against national best practices and look at other programs that can provide intervention and support before people are arrested.