Op-Ed

It would be the largest investment in Whatcom history, but is jail the best investment for justice?

The Whatcom County Courthouse in downtown Bellingham. The Vera Institute, a leading authority on criminal justice reform, says 59 percent of people in Whatcom County Jail are there await trial.
The Whatcom County Courthouse in downtown Bellingham. The Vera Institute, a leading authority on criminal justice reform, says 59 percent of people in Whatcom County Jail are there await trial. The Bellingham Herald file

Consider Ben, a 21-year-old with a full page of criminal convictions.

How did this happen? Ben smoked pot with friends in high school and was offered meth. Curiosity led to addiction. Addiction led to theft. Theft led to jail. Jail led to homelessness, then more time in jail followed by a felony virtually guaranteeing no chance to find a job and create an honest, tax-paying, productive life.

Ben’s story could be different – if his addiction led instead to treatment and counseling and a plan for training and education and productive work. This is the story we all want for Ben.

We will choose how this story turns out for the Bens in our community when we vote on the new jail tax in November.

The proposed jail will cost $202 million ($110 million with a 4.5 percent interest rate over 30 years). This is the largest capital investment in Whatcom County history and one of the costliest jails proposed in the United States, coming in at $250,000 per bed. (For the nearest geographical reference, Skagit’s jail, which opened in 2017, cost $120,000 per bed.)

We turned this tax down in 2015. A majority of voters decided this was too much money just for a jail. And our no vote had significant, positive impacts.

Because we said no, we now have the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Taskforce, a permanent table for community leaders to address jail population issues;

Because we said no, we have plans to build a triage facility – 32 mental health and detox beds for people in crisis;

Because we said no, the city of Bellingham has implemented electronic home monitoring for misdemeanants – allowing people to retain jobs and connections with family and community, saving $93.50 a day – and studies show the likelihood of reoffending by these folks is less than those in jail;

Because we said no, the Vera Institute, a leading authority on criminal justice reform, was engaged to analyze our actual jail utilization. We now know most of our offenders are non-violent; 59 percent in jail are pre-trial and not convicted of anything, presumed innocent by law; and most of our felonies are drug-related. There are less expensive, more effective ways than jail to address these populations.

You will hear “If not now, when?” The “when” comes when we have decided who we must detain and then determine effective ways to deal with those we do not want to detain.

You may hear our jail is inhumane and falling apart. Let’s repair it while we engage in a community effort to plan for the future of public safety in our community – a process that has already started.

You will hear that without this tax, we won’t have any money for rehabilitation programming or diversion efforts and we won’t get 36 medical beds for our inmates. Building a new jail should not be the price for providing treatment and care. Using the jail as a safety net for people in crises is an expensive and ineffective approach.

This jail costs too much for too little improved community safety. It supports the first Ben story – not the second one. The second Ben story requires a reallocation of public investment in community safety from still bigger jails to reduced reliance on incarceration paired with increased alternative services to help Bens turn their lives around.

Please join us in voting “no” on the jail this November. Tell our county government that you want Bens in our community to get a better chance to turn around their lives – because it costs us less and benefits us more. Saying no again will set us on the path to “yes” on a better planned investment in community safety.

Kirsten Barron and Heather Flaherty are Whatcom County community members The Herald asked to write about the jail plan.

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