Whatcom tackles jail issues while new jail planning on hiatus

A Whatcom County maintenance services employee works to fix a cell door lock on July 8, 2015, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash.
A Whatcom County maintenance services employee works to fix a cell door lock on July 8, 2015, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham, Wash. eabell@bhamherald.com

Months after a proposal to build a new Whatcom County Jail failed at the ballot, officials continue to tackle challenges with the existing jail system.

The county is working to reduce the population at the main downtown jail, make urgent repairs at the minimum security work center, and plans to hire a firm to assess short- and long-term fixes for both buildings.

Meanwhile, Bellingham is working to give its municipal court more alternatives to jail, including electronic home detention, as quickly as possible, while the county’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force drafts countywide recommendations.

In the background of all this, though planning for a new jail has been virtually suspended since November, some council members from Whatcom County, Bellingham and Lummi Nation have been working to find common principles that might guide the next round of jail negotiations.

Jail population

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo and his staff are following through on a promise to reduce the population at the main downtown jail to around 212 by requiring users such as Bellingham to move their inmates to other facilities.

Since Jan. 15, Bellingham has moved 18 people to Yakima County Jail, and since early February, Lummi Nation has moved four people to Yakima and one person to Chehalis, said Wendy Jones, Whatcom County Jail chief.

The main jail population hovered between 217 and 241 in the last few months of 2015.

Friday morning, Feb. 26, the main jail had 209 inmates, and by 1 p.m. had 217, Jones said.

“It gradually increases over the day,” Jones said. “Usually the next morning, once we start getting first appearances, it drops again.”

In general, the population has been hovering at a lower figure than before the efforts to move people, she said.

The number of inmates eligible for transfer is limited to people who have charges only in one court. For example, Bellingham may transfer people who only have charges in the city’s municipal court.

The county is responsible for housing people on all felony arrests, regardless of the booking agency.

Bellingham is the only city without a current jail agreement. The Whatcom County Council discussed a city-proposed draft of an agreement in executive session Feb. 23.

Electronic home monitoring

Bellingham City Council gave immediate approval to start an electronic home detention program for city inmates when it passed an emergency ordinance Monday night, Feb. 22.

The city has a contract with nonprofit Friendship Diversion Services, which has already hired an employee to work in the city and is leasing space in the Crown Plaza building on Commercial Street, City Attorney Peter Ruffatto told the council on Monday.

Misdemeanor sentences can often be short, spanning only a few days, which had limited many city inmates from being eligible to access the county’s electronic home monitoring program.

By Friday, Feb. 26, the city’s court had referred 10 people to be screened for the program, and eight were determined to be eligible, said Brian Heinrich, deputy administrator for the city. One person had already completed their sentence through the program.

People are not eligible for the city program if they are convicted of any felony violent offense, felony sex offense, felony drug offense, first- or second-degree reckless burning, harassment, unlawful imprisonment, third-degree assault, third-degree assault of a child or first-, second- or third-degree escape or have any pending domestic violence charge.

The assessment also takes into account prior felony convictions, outstanding warrants, a history of failure to appear for court dates, employment, and other factors.

Work center repairs, deficiency study

On Jan. 26, County Council signed off on a replacement security system for the minimum security work center on Division Street.

The fix, not to exceed $67,470, will replace a 10-year-old system that links intercoms, door controls and closed-circuit security cameras with software.

Status Electrical, the contractor that recently updated the system at the main jail, reported in October that the Secureplex system in the work center was “presenting symptoms of imminent failure,” requiring frequent resets.

On Feb. 23, the council approved paying for that fix with a portion of about $700,000 that remains from 2010 general obligation bonds the county issued to pay for part of the main jail security upgrades, which came in under budget.

The council approved using the rest of the remaining money to study deficiencies in the jail and minimum security facility, and to make some improvements.

Jail principles discussed

On Feb. 23, County Council members Ken Mann and Carl Weimer presented a resolution that would recognize common incarceration prevention, criminal justice, jail planning and behavioral health principles among the county, tribes and cities.

Weimer explained to the other council members that he and Mann had met with skeptics of the previous jail plan since December to recognize questions and concerns they had.

“What you see in this is a synopsis of a variety of questions those skeptics had raised,” Weimer said. “Not every statement in the whole thing I agree with. I think many of those have been asked and answered.”

As presented, the draft included statements and principles such as:

▪  “We believe decisions must be based on data and evidence, and that crucial information has been lacking.”

▪  “Provide better data to decision-makers and the public, including relevant demographic, statistical and jail usage information.”

▪  “The Ferndale location for the new jail has not been adequately explained for all our jail use partners and the public.”

▪  “Apportion construction and operating costs separately and fairly among jail users based on actual use, or best estimates of actual future use.”

Council member Barbara Brenner said there were some nonstarters in the proposal for her.

“We can’t hold people’s hands and make them do everything and read everything,” Brenner said. “This is going to make people think we can start all the way back to the beginning. I would have liked a very short resolution that said a couple of specific things you guys said.”

Brenner said she didn’t even agree to the Ferndale location, which the county has already purchased.

Council member Todd Donovan said he wanted to know if the resolution gave enough direction to County Executive Jack Louws, who had told the council that he needed them to provide clear direction before he could move forward with a renewed effort to get a new jail.

“We had already started on this when the executive came to us and said he took his best shot and wanted the legislative authorities to look at it,” Weimer said.

Weimer said he went over the resolution with Louws, who also had a reaction to some parts.

“I don’t think anybody is in love with the whole thing,” Weimer said.

Elfo said he was concerned with some elements of the resolution, including the insinuation that the process had not been transparent.

The committee tabled the resolution and planned to take another look at it March 8.

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil