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Bellingham may change jail contract so officers can book people again

A deputy takes a head count at night on July 30, 2015, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. Under the city’s current jail contract, Bellingham police are restricted from booking some people into the jail if the number of inmates gets too high.
A deputy takes a head count at night on July 30, 2015, at Whatcom County Jail in Bellingham. Under the city’s current jail contract, Bellingham police are restricted from booking some people into the jail if the number of inmates gets too high. eabell@bhamherald.com

Weeks into an agreement that kept city police from booking some people into the Whatcom County Jail, Bellingham officials appear ready to renegotiate a contract for jail services.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said he encouraged the city from the get-go to agree to “Option 1” under a contract to keep people at the Whatcom County Jail downtown.

That option, picked by all the other small cities in the county, requires cities to remove inmates within hours after their first court appearance if the sheriff deems the population in the downtown jail is getting too high.

Bellingham negotiated its own “Option 2,” signed in mid-June, because the city couldn’t realistically promise it would be able to move its inmates within four hours of a first appearance. Instead, Option 2 was to allow the city more flexibility and, the hope was, more time to plan if and when inmates were required to be moved to Yakima County Jail or the South Correctional Entity (SCORE) facility south of Seattle, both of which require hours of travel time.

But Option 2 also explicitly allowed for booking restrictions, and only two weeks after the city approved the contract, Elfo told his staff to start restrictions for Option 2 users once the jail population started to get close to a 212-person cap.

The downtown jail has 283 beds but was originally designed for 148 inmates. It has held even more than 283 at times, with the use of temporary cots known as “boats,” but the sheriff said 212 people is the safe level for staff and the facility to handle.

Contract change

On Wednesday, Aug. 3, Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville wrote in an email to Elfo that, “In light of the booking restrictions that have been imposed,” she would recommend the city and county amend the jail contract so the city was an “Option 1” user.

Before the change is made, Linville and staff plan to update the Bellingham City Council on Monday, Aug. 8, and will likely bring that back for a decision later in the month.

The county executive could then sign off on the amendment, and if needed, bring that back to the Whatcom County Council.

Part of the city’s hesitation with “Option 1” was that it prioritized the transfer of pretrial inmates, and the city’s Municipal Court judge had issued an order saying it was not OK to move people who hadn’t been convicted yet without some type of video conferencing available for court procedures.

“A significant barrier to Option 1 since it was proposed to the City has been the lack of court procedures for pretrial defendants when transported to another jurisdiction,” Linville wrote. “Over the past months, we have established the technology necessary to conduct such hearings in Yakima County. We have also worked closely with public defense counsel to ensure their ability to communicate with their clients and conduct hearings in a manner that allows for confidential communications during the course of the hearings.”

Despite jail conditions and limitations, the Sheriff’s Office remains committed to maintaining conditions within the jail that are humane, safe and legal. We are also committed to efficiency and helping ensure City officers do not need to transport offenders to distant jails for initial booking.

Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, in an email to Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville

The city already has been using that video conferencing, and the judge’s order has since been lifted.

Linville also told Elfo that the city will increase what was a weekly transport to Yakima County Jail on Fridays to three times per week, on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but in return would expect to be able to hold its inmates in the jail until first judicial appearance on those days.

The city also requested the ability to keep inmates in the downtown jail during a trial, if necessary.

Elfo agreed that those conditions sounded doable, and he would recommend County Executive Jack Louws approve the contract change.

“Despite jail conditions and limitations, the Sheriff’s Office remains committed to maintaining conditions within the jail that are humane, safe and legal,” Elfo replied to Linville. “We are also committed to efficiency and helping ensure City officers do not need to transport offenders to distant jails for initial booking. Towards that end, I appreciate your reconsidering ‘Option 1.’ 

City Council frustrated

A handful of Bellingham City Council members, contacted earlier in the week, had expressed frustration about the process of working with the county on jail service and about booking restrictions only affecting the city.

Council Member Gene Knutson said he hoped the restrictions were not put in place as retribution. Louws and Elfo championed a plan to build a new jail last year, pushing for a sales tax increase to fund it, but Bellingham did not agree with the funding plan, and voters turned down the proposal at the November ballot.

“I would hope they’re not doing anything as retribution for council’s disagreement to go along with the jail plan,” Knutson said. “I was for the plan, but the rest of the council wasn’t.”

That said, there is no need to get into “tit-for-tat,” Knutson said.

“Hopefully we can come up with a solution that’s amenable to all,” Knutson said. “Our number one charge is public safety, and right now people are getting a little nervous with what’s going on.”

One man waving a hatchet and chasing cars in front of Bellingham Cold Storage, where Knutson works, was cited but not booked into jail Aug. 1.

Other members pointed out the work Bellingham has already done to help with crowding.

So my question is what is the county doing? Can they show us they’ve taken steps other than booking restrictions? Have they taken any steps to reduce the jail population to the number that’s necessary? Have they increased their alternatives?

Bellingham City Council Member Michael Lilliquist

“I think my biggest frustration comes from two factors. One, this situation is completely avoidable if the jurisdictions work together,” Council Member Michael Lilliquist said. “The other is the city has stepped up to do its job. We’ve reduced our numbers in the jail considerably with transfers, electronic home monitoring and other steps. The city of Bellingham is not causing the problem of crowding.”

City staff said that since the beginning of the year, about seven people per day had been in the downtown jail on Bellingham-only charges. If they have charges from other courts, the city couldn’t transport that person.

The sheriff said a much higher number of jail charges originate in Bellingham, but state law dictates that anyone charged with a felony, regardless of which city books them into the jail, becomes the county’s responsibility. Responsibility for transferring those people would fall on the county.

“So my question is, what is the county doing? Can they show us they’ve taken steps other than booking restrictions?” Lilliquist asked. “Have they taken any steps to reduce the jail population to the number that’s necessary? Have they increased their alternatives? Have they increased the use of the work detention center? Have they increased protocols for electronic home monitoring?”

Council Member Pinky Vargas also expressed frustration, saying it felt like the city had been given a moving target.

“I understand that the sheriff is having to make changes to make the jail a safe facility because we were overpopulated,” Vargas said. “But I also feel as though they make a change, we meet it, and then they give us another one.”

The entire contract negotiation was not presented in a collaborative way, Vargas said.

“It’s been laid out in like, ‘This is what you’re going to do,’ ” she said. “You can’t just assume that everything you lay out for people is going to work for them, in anything in life. This is government policy. It is absolutely rare that you have a one-way-or-the-highway kind of an option. This seems a little bit unusual. But I think it would benefit everyone if there was an opportunity for negotiation.”

Jail planning groups

Vargas and Knutson will serve on a new jail planning group started by the County Council that will be tasked with figuring out how to pay for a new jail by next year.

Meanwhile, Council Member Dan Hammill is serving on the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, which will make recommendations to the county this year on a crisis triage facility, as well as other aspects of the criminal justice system.

The group has looked at several alternative programs such as Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, or LEAD program, which connects people with services rather than booking them into jail.

“There’s been a lot of talk of what could that look like if some of those principles were applied locally,” Hammill said. “Other communities are looking at them as a means to reduce their own populations in their jails and divert people to treatment.”

The task force has also been talking about a proposal to open a 32-bed triage facility in Bellingham that would have 16 beds for mental health treatment and 16 beds for substance abuse treatment.

“I think that could be a start in terms of addressing the disproportionate amount of people who are in our local jail who have issues,” Hammill said. “But we are talking 32 beds in Whatcom County. If we compare that against the backdrop of what’s happening, which is the closing of Pioneer Center North scheduled for 2018, that’s 140 beds for substance use disorder and mental illness, what does that 32 beds get us in terms of capacity?”

Whatcom County ranks third out of 39 counties for overall negative impacts from heroin abuse and sixth for overall negative impacts from prescription opiates, according to a 2016-2019 Community Health Needs Assessment for PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.

“Out of 39 counties we rank too close to the top for that issue. So is that a criminal justice issue or a public health issue?” Hammill asked. “Or is it both, and how do we apply resources to effectively manage and end it? We cannot continue on with the arrest, incarcerate and release model, and rearrest. It just doesn’t work.”

Samantha Wohlfeil: 360-715-2274, @SAWohlfeil

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