Guest Commentaries

This time, jail replacement process is sound

New facility must fit with justice system realities
April 28, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Inmates move pantry items through the first floor of the Whatcom County jail in November 2022.
Inmates move pantry items through the first floor of the Whatcom County jail in November 2022. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

By Peter Frazier, Guest Writer

A new jail and behavioral care center are imperative. It’s one vital part of a constellation of much-needed facilities and programs.

As of April 24, 186 people are being held in Whatcom County’s downtown Bellingham jail. They are incarcerated in bleak, overcrowded and dangerous conditions.

Out-of-date when it opened in 1984, the jail is costly to operate and creates great liability risks. It’s a needlessly miserable place to be incarcerated, work and visit. It has inadequate space to prepare meals, care for inmates’ medical or mental health needs, exercise, experience daylight and fresh air, meet with attorneys and have an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

Inmates, staff, corrections experts, prosecutors, defense attorneys, police, behavioral health professionals and county citizens of every political stripe who have taken recent jail tours agree: The facility is inhumane. And it’s been this way for decades.

How we came to have a jail this deplorable and have failed multiple times to approve and build a more humane facility has been discussed at length. Accusations, arguments and even conspiracies have coursed through this county for years. Now, it’s time to move forward.

If work proceeds as expected and the council puts it on the ballot, you will be able to vote for a modern, trauma-informed-designed jail and behavioral care center this November. It would be paid for with a levy of 0.2% sales tax, amounting to 20 cents on a purchase of $100, paid for by all (including Canadian shoppers).

Since the proposed levies failed in 2015 and 2017, this community has changed significantly, and the jail’s condition is even worse. Fortunately, this proposal is much better. Here’s why it’s different this time:

●    This proposal is not being put forward and promoted mainly by a county executive and law enforcement. This time it’s being created by a broad base of citizens, behavioral health professionals, prosecutors and public defenders, elected officials and staff from throughout Whatcom County, educators, activists, jail staff and law enforcement. The “Yes, Safe Jail, Healthy Outcomes” committee to promote a “yes” vote is thoroughly bipartisan.

●    The process is inclusive. After the 2017 levy failure, a countywide listening tour was undertaken to understand what voters wanted in a new jail and our behavioral health and criminal justice systems. The Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) for the Justice Project has studied each aspect of local and state systems that influence who is in jail, how they got there and why.

●    We have a roadmap this time. The SAC’s Needs Assessment details how a jail and behavioral care center is an important part of a constellation of needed local and regional facilities and programs to help people recover from behavioral health crises and lead healthy lives; how to divert people from the criminal justice system when possible; how to safely incarcerate people when necessary; and how to reintegrate people back into the community with support for their long-term success.

●    The planning and design will be far more responsive to community needs. The Justice Project Implementation team has looked broadly at best practices for planning and building a modern, appropriately sized jail and behavioral care center that is right for our community.

●    Local policymakers have worked hard to keep people out of jail and divert them into substance use disorder and mental health treatment and housing. Over the last six years, we have implemented an Alternate Response Team, the LEAD program and the GRACE program to find solutions for high-utilizers of emergency services. We now have a crisis stabilization center, electronic home monitoring, behavioral health deputies, a community paramedic program, therapeutic courts and more.

A recent opinion piece concluded that our jail is inhumane and needs to be replaced with an appropriately sized facility, but also claimed that Whatcom County’s criminal justice system itself is inhumane. I agree with the first point but want to clarify some inaccuracies used in arguing the second.

●    A significant number of people incarcerated locally await competency restoration services by Western State Hospital. The wait can be six months or more. Local judges have held the state in contempt numerous times to live up to its obligations, but people with significant mental health disorders who cannot aid in their own defense are in our jail for long periods without treatment. This is inhumane, but it is the state which is responsible. Currently, there is no local solution.

●    Due to booking restrictions at our overcrowded jail, we rarely detain those charged with misdemeanors. We only hold people charged with felonies considered a danger to the community or those who have repeatedly failed to appear in court. This is why most of our inmates are pretrial. Scroll through the jail roster and see for yourself who is being held in jail and whether you want them free in our community.

●    Most Superior Court defendants are released pretrial without cash bail. If there’s evidence a defendant will commit other crimes, or fail to come to court, a modest bail will be imposed, giving the defendant an incentive to stay out of trouble pre-trial. Washington’s constitution requires bail to be an option for all crimes except murder. To eliminate cash bail requires a constitutional amendment.

●    The assumption that a new jail, built with extra capacity for future population growth, will be filled immediately is wrong. Skagit, Snohomish and King counties' jails are not even close to capacity.

The issues surrounding our jail are complex, but working together, this community is up to the task of improving our criminal justice and behavioral health systems. What is simple and clear is this: Funding a new jail is imperative. If we are to demonstrate ourselves to be responsible voters, taxpayers and humans, we must vote yes for a safe jail in November.

Lifelong Whatcom resident Peter Frazier was a member of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the Justice Project and is now Chair of the “Yes! Safe Jail, Healthy Outcomes” campaign committee.

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