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Costs, incarceration rates merit a ‘no’ vote on jail measure

Democratic Party chair: Big jail is wrong answer to 'root' problem of homelessness

Panels peel from the ceiling of the Whatcom County Jail in November 2022. Voters will be asked this November to approve a sales tax to fund replacing the current jail on Central Avenue in downtown Bellingham.
Panels peel from the ceiling of the Whatcom County Jail in November 2022. Voters will be asked this November to approve a sales tax to fund replacing the current jail on Central Avenue in downtown Bellingham.
By Andrew Reding, Guest Writer

For proponents of a November Whatcom County jail-tax measure, it’s not a good sign when Cascadia Daily News reports, “How will that money be spent? This simple question comes with no definitive answers, and voters won’t exactly know what they’re deciding on.” 

A Whatcom Democrats resolution concludes, “the current proposal fails to provide what Whatcom voters have a right to expect in terms of transparency, attention to detail, fiscal responsibility, and addressing the underlying causes of incarceration.”

As reported in CDN, “Numbers have been tossed around by government leaders and the media: a 440-cell jail on LaBounty Drive in Ferndale, with a cost estimate of $137 million. But those numbers aren’t real.” That’s because they are rough guesses without an actual jail plan as in previous ballot measures. With inflation, the pro-ballot-measure PAC estimates $150 million.

That’s not including Project Labor Agreements we should adopt to ensure full protections and benefits to construction workers.

County Treasurer Steven Oliver supports a new jail, but cautions we cannot spend more than $100 million without destabilizing our capital budget. He told me the county budget is stretched tight, only getting by because of federal pandemic relief funds. The additional staff and maintenance costs not covered by the tax will eat up our capacity to provide other services to the community. The proposed jail is simply larger than we can afford.

It’s also larger than can be justified. In 2017, voters rejected a proposed 244-cell jail – 440 cells almost doubles that!

The 2017 Vera Report commissioned by the county council said the jail population was “unnecessarily high” because so many cannot afford bail. It’s only gotten worse — 98% of inmates are now pretrial, almost two-thirds of whom report they are in jail because they cannot afford to pay bail

Danger to the public, not ability to pay, should determine being held or released until trial.

Pretrial detention contributes to homelessness. In the most recent jail survey, almost half report having lost their housing, and almost a third their job, while awaiting trial.

It’s also expensive — over $70,000 annually per jailed individual. We should make electronic home monitoring, when it is appropriate, available to all by eliminating fees (almost $800/month, $350/month “low income”). That still saves the public more than $60,000/year per jail bed.

Washington Court Rule 3.2 allows judges to release low-risk defendants until trial without paying cash. They are not using it — we should hold them accountable at election time.

The Vera Report identified racial disparities as another cause of over-incarceration. The latest jail survey reports Latino people jailed at twice, and Black and Native American people six times, the rate of white people.

We must address causes of over-incarceration before sizing a jail. Just 20 miles north across the border, the incarceration rate — and cost — in British Columbia is a fifth of ours, with better outcomes. Whatcom’s rate is also 65% higher than King County, 82% higher than Vermont, and twice Rhode Island’s.

To drum up support for a big new jail, Sheriff Bill Elfo stoked fear of crime, publicizing sharp spikes in property crimes during the pandemic. Now that his past-year data shows burglary plunging 44%, robbery halved, vehicle prowl down two-thirds, vandalism more than a third, he’s silent because it contradicts his message.

Another driver of support for a big new jail are the growing ranks of the unhoused in our streets and parks. It’s widely believed this crisis is caused primarily by mental illness and drugs. But as documented in “Homelessness is a Housing Problem,” mental health explains only 5% and drug use 6% of the nationwide variance in rates of homelessness. By far the largest factor is the housing market. Median rents alone explain 55% of the variance.

We must address the root cause, by vastly expanding the supply of both market- and below-market-rate housing. Our housing shortage is jacking up rents, forcing an additional 27% increase in the unhoused in the past year alone

Far from liberating our downtown and public spaces from human misery and dysfunction, overinvesting in corrections instead of housing will continue to force more people unable to afford rising rents onto the streets, where their mental health will deteriorate, and some will turn to deadly opiates trying to escape their pain.

Overbuilding a jail to get rid of “booking restrictions” is not only fiscally unwise but makes our community less safe. It misallocates law enforcement resources to more minor violations at the expense of the most significant threats to public safety. Over-jailing disrupts families, increases racial and economic disparities, and creates barriers to employment and housing that lead to a return to criminal activity as a means of survival. 

Tearing the social fabric also compounds our fentanyl crisis. A study in the medical journal Lancet found that as little as a 1 per 1,000 within-county increase in jail incarceration rate was associated with a 2.6% increase in drug use mortality. That means with the current jail population around 320, adding as few as 32 beds — a one in ten increase — would be predicted to more than double (260%) drug use deaths. The study concluded, “Jail incarceration can be harmful not only to the health of individuals who are incarcerated, but also to public health more broadly.”

We cannot jail our way out of this crisis of homelessness. We can only build and treat our way out.

Andrew Reding, Chair of Whatcom Democrats, is a public policy professional who served in an appointive capacity in the U.S. departments of Justice and Homeland Security for 20 years.

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