Crime

Whatcom Sheriff’s Office seeing increased use of ‘alternative to incarceration’

A Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office out-of-custody work crew cleans and plants flowers in last month near the Whatcom County Courthouse. The sheriff’s office reported it saw a 37-percent increase in the number of days served on its out-of-custody work crews in 2018 compared to two years earlier
A Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office out-of-custody work crew cleans and plants flowers in last month near the Whatcom County Courthouse. The sheriff’s office reported it saw a 37-percent increase in the number of days served on its out-of-custody work crews in 2018 compared to two years earlier Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office reported in a Facebook post last week that it saw a 37 percent increase in the number of days served on its out-of-custody work crews in 2018 compared to two years earlier.

The post said 2,664 days that otherwise would have been served in jail last year were completed through the work crew program.

“This provides an alternative to incarceration and has helped instill valuable work habits, preserve scarce jail space for more serious and dangerous offenders, saved taxpayers incarceration costs and provided a valuable service to the community,” Sheriff Bill Elfo wrote in the post.

Whatcom County Sheriff’s Chief Corrections Deputy Wendy Jones told The Bellingham Herald that the daily cost for full custody at the Whatcom County Jail is $116, plus $13 per day for a capital replacement fee. Those costs, plus a $116 booking fee, are billed to the jurisdiction that arrested the offender.

Jones said the per day cost for the out-of-custody work crew is $50 per offender, which also is billed to the jurisdiction where the offender is sentenced out of, to offset costs such as the work crew supervisor, transportation, tools, equipment and insurance.

Offenders on work crews also can earn $103.12 per eight-hour day ($12.89 per hour) toward their legal fines in 2019. That amount is up from $60 per day ($7.50 per hour) in 2017, when the county code was changed to calculate work crew reimbursement rates based on changes in the economy.

“The information about these changes has been slowly spreading,” Jones told The Herald, “and more offenders are requesting permission of the Courts to participate.”

Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey has said that bail reform is also a way to reduce incarceration rates, which would ease pressure on the aging Whatcom County Jail.

Jones said that was not the only ordinance change that has made the out-of-custody work crew more attractive to eligible offenders the past two years. She said Elfo also worked with the county executive and County Council to institute a program of fee waivers or sliding scales for people on limited incomes.

“Prior to this request, mandatory fees for each program had been in place in order to meet a requirement by the county that all jail alternative programs be self-supporting,” Jones told The Herald. “Many of the offenders were willing to participate in the various programs, but didn’t have the money for the fees that were required to apply and/or participate.”

If authorized by a judge and classified appropriately, minimum-security offenders who are convicted may “day report” to the sheriff’s office for assignment to a work crew, Jones said. Each day they serve on a work crew gives them credit for one day in jail.

Whatcom County officials will spend some $16 million over the next few years to repair the current County Jail, after two failed attempts to raise taxes for a new multi-use corrections facility that they say is desperately needed.

When offenders do participate in the work crews, Jones said that helps free up space in Whatcom County Jail, which is often battling over crowding.

Among the projects work crews have worked on, Jones said, have been picking up trash and landscaping at county parks, building and maintaining trails and campsites in the Mount Baker wilderness and working with volunteers to build a playground in Lynden. Jones said that crew members can learn technical skills and work habits from their time on projects such as those.

“The crew members appreciate being able to go home at night, while getting credit against jail time or fines they have been given by the court, and the crew supervisors serve as mentors as well as supervisors,” Jones said.

David Rasbach joined The Bellingham Herald in 2005 and now covers breaking news. He has been an editor and writer in several western states since 1994.
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