Op-Ed

Here’s why the sheriff supports Whatcom County’s proposed jail tax

A cell at the Whatcom County Jail in 2015. Whatcom County Proposition 2017-6, a public safety and jail facilities sales and use tax, would fund construction and partial operation of a new jail.
A cell at the Whatcom County Jail in 2015. Whatcom County Proposition 2017-6, a public safety and jail facilities sales and use tax, would fund construction and partial operation of a new jail. The Bellingham Herald file

Over the past twenty years, multiple citizen panels, task forces, engineers, professional jail planners and the United States Department of Justice have stressed the urgent need to replace the Whatcom County Jail. These bodies, individuals and firms identified the frequent failure, unreliability and in some cases complete absence of critical life-safety and security systems and the associated dangers to staff, inmates and visitors. Furthermore, significant concerns exist with respect to the design and structural stability of the building and the county’s ability to comply with current standards and the law.

A substantial number of people in the jail suffer from severe and dangerous forms of mental illness and/or undergo withdrawal from drugs and/or alcohol. While professional staff are contracted to address these issues, the facility lacks any semblance of adequate facilities for doing so. Evaluation and treatment often occur through a chow hatch in a cell door without the benefit of the privacy needed to elicit accurate information or provide meaningful counseling.

It is often necessary to separate inmates whose mental health or addictions issues pose threats to themselves or others. Housing for these offenders occurs in a busy booking area where they can be closely monitored. This area is often busy 24 hours a day. In some cases this only alternative aggravates rather than alleviates existing behavioral health problems.

Due to the failing conditions of the facility, the population at the jail was capped. When capacity is reached, inmates are transferred to jails in other counties. This practice not only results in logistical issues related to court appearances, but it separates inmates from the support networks such as family and lawyers that are critical to their successful re-integration into society.

Aside from the human element, taxpayers are exposed to a host of potential financial liabilities that relate to lawsuits over the conditions of confinement. Millions are spent on essential remedial repairs that are projected to only keep the facility functioning for a few more years. The estimated cost of replacing the facility has risen sharply over the years and is expected to continue to do so.

Tax measure

Last year, the latest County Council created task force, after months of study and negotiation, recommended a proposal for a two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax (20 cents on purchases of $100 excluding automobiles) that will fund the construction and partial operation of an approximate 476-bed jail facility including 36 beds to evaluate, treat and house those with mental health, addiction withdrawal and other medical issues as well as space for educational and life-skills training.

The tax will also provide $30 over the next 30 years to supplement funds being directed to programs such as improved community-based mental health treatment, detoxification, and other efforts to keep people out of jail and the criminal justice system. Half of the tax will expire when the jail bond is paid off or 30 years (whichever comes first). Provisions are included for maintenance and repairs that will help prevent deterioration.

Every city council, every city mayor, the Whatcom County council and the county executive supported this proposal. It will appear on the voter’s ballot as 2017-6.

Despite our state Legislature’s constant practice of transferring incarceration responsibilities from the state prison system to county jails, our community has done much over the past decade to reduce incarceration needs. Drug and mental health courts have provided the support needed to change lives. The appropriate use of out-of-custody work crews, work release and electronic home monitoring has provided safe and less costly alternatives to full incarceration. A “Fast-Track” program has served to move cases more quickly through the system. Much more is being pursued in terms of increasing the availability of community-based mental health treatment and detoxification.

Bill Elfo is the elected Whatcom County sheriff. He has served since 2002.

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