Op-Ed

Officials offer four reasons to support Whatcom County’s jail sales tax

A high security inmate paces around the recreation area of Whatcom County Jail during his weekly hour for recreation in 2015 in Bellingham.
A high security inmate paces around the recreation area of Whatcom County Jail during his weekly hour for recreation in 2015 in Bellingham. The Bellingham Herald file

Before us again this year is a proposition on funding a new jail facility for Whatcom County. Voters might be asking themselves why they should support this measure after a similar vote came before voters two years ago. Many significant changes have been made, and we are now supporting this new jail proposal for several reasons, and we hope you will support it too.

This jail measure is about humanitarian choices. The choice is whether to fund a criminal justice system that we want or to make the situation worse by not funding a facility to take people who have committed crimes in our communities. While Whatcom County is responsible for all of the felony convictions in the county, cities are responsible for lesser convictions, which is about 22 percent. Without a new facility, cities – including Bellingham – will be left woefully short of options and will be forced to either not arrest people who commit crimes or to take people to Yakima or beyond before they have even had a trial.

Our goals for a new jail have been to reduce incarceration and recidivism, to have a safe and functional jail that is the right size for our community, and to have the resources we need to fund alternatives to incarceration. This current jail proposal is a great step towards those goals.

We believe the jail proposal addresses the following concerns:

Protecting victims: Our criminal justice system is designed with both punitive and restorative elements, and while we need to provide the option of rehabilitation to those who commit crimes, our community also expects that we will keep violent or dangerous people off our streets. We owe it to the victims of crimes to have a jail that fits our community.

Behavioral and mental health: The new jail proposal will add 34 new mental health beds to our community. This resource is badly needed, and this is our opportunity to locally fund this mental health treatment in Whatcom County.

Jail alternatives: Both the County and the City of Bellingham have been investing in alternatives to jail for years, and are committed to increasing those investments in incarceration prevention to both treat people more humanely and drive down the costs to our taxpayers. But these incarceration prevention efforts do not negate the need for a new jail facility. Additionally, Whatcom County and Bellingham have agreed to a contractual obligation to use $30 million from this ballot measure to fund jail alternatives. That money for incarceration prevention programs will not be available if this ballot measure fails.

Oversight: The County and all the cities in Whatcom County agreed to establish and participate in an advisory board to discuss matters and make recommendations related to jail finances and operations. This means that Bellingham and the smaller cities will have a voice in how the jail is managed, which the cities haven’t had before.

We need a safe jail. The current facility is a risk to both staff and inmates, and the lack of space to separate inmates and provide treatment is inhumane. No amount of remodeling of our existing jail will provide enough space for programs, recreation and opportunities to our incarcerated population. They deserve dignity and opportunities that cannot happen in the existing building. Not only does this proposal help address those needs, it also helps cities fund their own public safety needs, such as police and fire. We join all the city mayors, councils, the sheriff and the county executive in supporting this proposal.

If you want the criminal justice system to change for the better in Whatcom County, we urge you to vote yes on the Public Safety and Jail Sales and Use Tax proposition.

Kelli Linville is mayor of Bellingham. She wrote this with Bellingham City Council members Pinky Vargas and Gene Knutson plus Carl Weimer, a member of the Whatcom County Council who did not seek re-election this year.

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