Whatcom County is obligated to operate its county jail system in a safe, humane and constitutional manner. Today, it is often nearly impossible to meet required conditions. The jail is constantly overcrowded and continually challenged by failing infrastructure and serious problems with life-safety and security systems. Compounding problems, the jail also lacks adequate space for mental health and medical evaluation, treatment and housing. With no options for remedying this situation on the horizon, it is necessary to reduce and limit the inmate population to safer levels.
Whatcom County is legally responsible for housing those charged, sentenced or otherwise ordered held in custody by the district and superior courts as well as those booked by law enforcement agencies on charges answerable in these courts. This includes people charged or sentenced on felony charges (including those arrested by city officers) and those wanted in other counties and states.
City and tribal governments are legally responsible for housing those people charged with misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors in their respective jurisdictions. For many years the county provided jail services, including alternatives to incarceration, for these governments through an inter-local agreement that expired last year.
While taking action that will result in inmates being removed from their community and families is not ideal, neither is leaving them in our county jail ...
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Bellingham Herald
To ensure jail safety, provide the infrastructure needed for the effective administration of justice and ensure the safety of the community, we want to continue to accept and book those persons arrested or ordered incarcerated by municipal and tribal courts on misdemeanor charges. When maximum capacity is reached in the jail, jurisdictions using the jail will be asked to arrange for the removal of their offenders from the facility. This will normally involve a timely and orderly transfer of inmates not released by judges on their own recognizance or bail. It is my intent to do all that is reasonably possible to avoid “booking restrictions.” These restrictions, which were in affect a decade ago, precluded law enforcement officers from jailing misdemeanor offenders including those arrested on charges such as driving under the influence, assault, theft, or ordered arrested by judges through the issuance of arrest warrants.
The sheriff’s office has been working with local user jurisdictions to coordinate and identify solutions including using jail space in other parts of the state. Jail space with robust facilities to treat and house dangerously mentally ill inmates is available near Seattle. Since the sheriff’s office operates a regional inmate transportation network, it is available to provide regular transportation. Other governments are finding solutions they feel work best for their local communities. As an example, Bellingham will begin providing pre-trial supervision to reduce jail incarceration needs and is sending some offenders to a jail in Yakima. I have asked the city of Bellingham to consider de-criminalizing portions of its legal code, which in the past has resulted in their using limited jail spaces for such charges as sleeping on the sidewalk, garbage violations and similar non-violent offenses. The Lummi Nation is transferring inmates serving multi-year consecutive sentences to other tribally operated facilities. The Nooksack Tribe also found a tribal jail to meet their needs. The smaller cities are in the process of selecting and contracting with other jails.
To free up jail space to meet the needs of local jurisdictions, the sheriff’s office is working with the Washington State Department of Corrections to wind down our practice of providing short-term jail space for those persons in our community who violate the conditions of their release from state prisons. Our office is also continuing to maximize the use of jail alternative programming including work crews, work release and electronic home monitoring.
I am also working with the county executive to determine what structural and system changes might be made in the jail to strengthen the structure, improve life-safety as well as provide increased space for mental and medical health services. This will provide other elected officials with a cost-benefit analysis to compare the wisdom of spending funds on the existing facility or implement a plan to replace the jail.
The sheriff’s office is also participating in the incarceration prevention and reduction task force. For decades, law enforcement leaders and the mental health community have advocated for preventing incarceration of the mentally ill through community-based treatment prior to crimes being committed and for a fully-functional behavioral health triage center as an alternative to jail. I’m pleased the task force is working on recommendations towards that goal and other changes to the justice system that may reduce future jail space needs.
While taking action that will result in inmates being removed from their community and families is not ideal, neither is leaving them in our county jail which has been reported by architects, engineers, multiple citizen committees, fire officials and the National Institute of Corrections warning as posing serious threats to human life. As sheriff I will continue to coordinate with other officials to minimize disruption and ensure as smooth a transition as possible in reaching a safer and humane jail for our community.
Bill Elfo is the elected Whatcom County sheriff. He has served since 2002. For more information online, go to co.whatcom.wa.us/sheriff.