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Guest commentary: Dignity, care and avoiding incarceration

A 'state of the union' on Whatcom County jail reduction

By Jack Hovenier and Stephen Gockley, Guest Writers

Over the last decade, Whatcom County has worked to transform its criminal legal system from one focused on incarceration to one investing in equity, public health and community safety.

We know that people who wind up in jail aren’t always violent offenders — they may be community members facing underlying challenges with mental health or substance use disorders, or individuals who don’t have the financial ability to post bail. A traditional incarceration model fails to respond to those challenges in timely and effective ways.

The consensus from community members, social service agencies, law enforcement, and public health has been to create more services to address the underlying causes of incarceration, and to reduce incarceration where we can maintain public safety.

In 2015, the Whatcom County Council created the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) to help lead the county in doing just that. The IPRTF works in partnership with cities in the county, community members, providers and agencies like the Health and Community Services Department, law enforcement, and the executive’s office to make specific recommendations to create and expand programs and change policies to achieve Whatcom County’s vision for a transformed system.

●    Programs like LEAD and GRACE work with community members with various criminal offenses as a result of behavioral health or substance use disorders, moving them from the criminal legal system to access mental and physical health resources that help them regain stability and thrive;     

●    The Alternative Response Team, run by the Health and Community Services Department, provides a mobile alternative response instead of a police officer for non-violent behavioral health 911 calls in Bellingham;

●   The Anne Deacon Center for Hope provides crisis stabilization resources. The programs at this new center provide more access to adults in need of mental health or withdrawal management services, helping them restore and stabilize their health.

It remains true that incarceration is sometimes a necessary response. When necessary, incarceration must also be done in ways that don’t sacrifice dignity, care, accountability and successful community re-entry.

Earlier this year, a Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which included some members of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, assessed the systems, services and facilities we need to realize our vision of transformed systems.

After a community input process, the Justice Project Implementation Plan was approved by the county council. It identifies priorities for projects, services, and facilities that advance our goals — including a new Crisis Relief Center which will provide behavioral health urgent care services for walk-in patients and first responder drop-offs.

The Justice Project Implementation Plan also recommended building a new county jail and behavioral health treatment center for those facing incarceration. This treatment facility, approved by the voters in November, will have the capacity to provide comprehensive medical, behavioral health and substance use disorder care.

It will also provide a continuum of services to help individuals establish and stabilize their basic needs when they return to the community, rather than being released with nothing in place to keep them safe and healthy.

Community input has been and will continue to be central to the implementation of the Justice Project Implementation plan. It is especially important to hear from people and families directly impacted by incarceration, behavioral health and substance use, and to consider input from people historically overlooked or left out because of ethnicity or race. 

As we move into the next phase of this work, we invite and encourage community members to participate early and often in the conversations and planning that are ongoing and to attend meetings of the IPRTF to stay informed.

We have made progress in the ongoing work to transform our criminal legal system to better meet the needs of people who interact with it, but our work is far from over. Early on, the IPRTF adopted recommendations from the Vera Institute for Justice, and recently engaged a team of researchers at Washington State University to independently identify where we have made progress and what work is still urgently needed.

Our community has long agreed on the imperative to reduce and prevent incarceration as long as public safety can be maintained. We’ve accomplished changes most communities have not. The values that have guided our transformation to date cannot stop. Our community needs a system that treats our incarcerated community members with dignity and care and helps them avoid incarceration in the future.

Jack Hovenier and Stephen Gockley are co-chairs of Whatcom County’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force.

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