Because of overcrowding in the Whatcom County Jail, Bellingham police officers may not be able to book people there for drunken driving, assaults or domestic violence-related crimes.
As of Tuesday, July 12, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo notified Bellingham that once the downtown jail population starts to approach a 212-inmate cap he set, city officers will not be able to book people on certain lesser charges.
Once the cap is hit, Bellingham officers can only book people on felony charges, which the county legally has to accept for booking.
The main downtown jail was built in the mid-1980s to hold 148 inmates and was later refurbished to hold more. The facility now has 283 beds, but Elfo set the cap at 212 because he says that is the number his staff and the facility can safely handle in a “constitutional manner.”
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City officials said the restrictions came as a bit of a surprise, considering the city has averaged seven inmates a day in the facility since Jan. 1, and Bellingham has both transferred eligible inmates to serve sentences in other jails and started its own electronic home monitoring program to keep even more people out of the facility.
“It’s not our problem right now. We are not overcrowding the jail,” Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville said.
We wanted to go to a system where the cities could book people into jail, and if they were not able to get them out after their first appearance, they would provide a timely transfer to another jail within a reasonable amount of time. The city wouldn’t agree to that.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo
But Elfo said the city asked for the restrictions when they negotiated a jail contract that differed from the agreement the other cities in the county have.
“We wanted to go to a system where the cities could book people into jail, and if they were not able to get them out after their first (court) appearance, they would provide a timely transfer to another jail within a reasonable amount of time,” Elfo said. “The city wouldn’t agree to that.”
That option, which cities like Ferndale and Lynden went with, requires removing pretrial inmates from the jail to another one, such as Yakima County Jail or the South Correctional Entity (SCORE) in Des Moines, just south of Sea-Tac airport.
Bellingham does have an agreement with Yakima and SCORE to keep inmates in either facility as needed, and the city has moved dozens of people to Yakima to serve their sentences. However, the city’s municipal court judge issued an order earlier this year that prevents any pretrial inmates from being sent there, partly because they haven’t been found guilty of a crime yet.
The judge’s order effectively made the contract option that all the other cities agreed to unavailable to Bellingham, said City Attorney Peter Ruffatto.
So the city and county negotiated a different deal, agreed on which types of city inmates could be transferred to help reduce the jail population, and agreed that if even more people needed to be moved from the jail, the city would get notice so it could work on more solutions.
“We said when the time comes, we’ll do everything in our power to reduce our population before booking restrictions,” Ruffatto said.
But restrictions were put in place last week without that notice, Ruffatto said.
Elfo maintains the city did not choose the option that would allow them to transfer people.
“It was the COB that during negotiations suggested and offered that the Sheriff retain the discretion to impose booking restrictions should other methods not be effective in reducing the jail population,” Elfo wrote in an email. “I insisted that the City arrange to have a facility in Western Washington that would accept and book inmates (not ideal, but provided an alternative when capacity was reached).”
I will resist and resist and resist the assumption on the part of the sheriff that we thought booking restrictions were OK. We never did.
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville
Several times in presentations and in written correspondence with the city, the sheriff has said he wanted to avoid booking restrictions if at all possible.
But in fact, Linville said, Bellingham asked to include in the contract that both the city and county recognize “it is in the best interest of the citizens of the County and City to avoid booking restrictions at the Whatcom County Jail,” but Elfo turned that language down.
“We clearly did not support booking restrictions,” Linville said. “I will resist and resist and resist the assumption on the part of the sheriff that we thought booking restrictions were OK. We never did.”
Looking for solutions
That booking restrictions were to be avoided was a key consideration in drafting the city’s contract, Ruffatto said.
But the way that the county has interpreted the contract, which the City Council signed in late June, Bellingham could be restricted from booking people into jail even if it has no inmates staying there, he said.
“It’s a challenge right now. We don’t really know what action to take. If the county and small cities put in 212 people, it doesn’t matter what we do,” Ruffatto said. “It didn’t dawn on me that a) we wouldn’t get notice of a spike in the jail population or b) even if we have no one in the jail, we could still be on restrictions.”
Now that restrictions are in effect for Bellingham if the jail population gets too high, what solutions can the city and county look at?
In a meeting with the mayor on Wednesday, July 20, Elfo suggested one option – Bellingham could buy designated beds in the jail, Linville said.
Meanwhile, the city wants to look at the best use of a second jail facility that opened on Division Street in 2006. Often called the Work Center, the facility has capacity for up to 150 minimum security inmates and operates as the base for people who check themselves in for work crew, work release and are getting set up for electronic home detention.
Lately, that facility has averaged between about 60 and 90 inmates, which means more beds are available there.
“If booking restrictions are a crisis, why aren’t we able to use that space?” City Deputy Administrator Brian Heinrich asked.
I would think if we are willing to be a partner and invest like we have been in helping them with their problem, while they haven’t really reduced their population at all, that you would think that we could work together on this, and it baffles me that we can’t.
Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville
Elfo said his department has been working to reduce the population of the downtown jail by transferring appropriate inmates to the work center, “where room currently exists (although the population has crept up and unreliable structural/system issues have resulted in limitations).”
“This process takes several days and involves obtaining a medical and mental health clearance as well as checks and obtaining documentation from other jails where the offender was previously housed and ensuring that the offender meets appropriate security standards for housing the minimum security facility,” Elfo wrote.
Linville said if it is a matter of having enough resources to screen people to see if they could go to the minimum security work center, she would be willing to talk about that.
“We haven’t been asked, and it’s their decision about how they’re going to operate their processes and programs in the jail,” Linville said. “I would think if we are willing to be a partner and invest like we have been in helping them with their problem, while they haven’t really reduced their population at all, that you would think that we could work together on this, and it baffles me that we can’t.”
The Bellingham City Council will receive an update during its Monday afternoon, July 25, meeting.