Digging below the surface on civic issues
March 15, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
Have a vexing question, the answers to which can be so complicated it makes you want to jump straight into a streaming marathon of mindless dreck?
Step right up into our world.
The first year at Cascadia Daily News was largely about trying to establish a new community-based, locally owned/controlled news organization that provides the traditional reach of a “legacy” daily newspaper: News, opinion, arts, sports, etc. That’s more complicated than it sounds, but we’re still here, floating at least above the surface.
We’ll take it. But only as a baby step.
Our second year begins with a fervent desire to go deeper, with more in-depth reporting about issues critical to our civic well-being. Many of those, we believe, offer glimpses into what we, as news people, try to explore and illuminate — the “soul of our community.”
I like to think that corner has been turned. See the growing Special Reports section under “News” in our website navigation bar. There, you’ll see a range of in-depth reports on a number of subjects:
A broad, historic look at gender in local sports, through our Title IX at 50 report. “Flood: One year later,” on the effects of horrific, historic 2021 flooding in Whatcom and Skagit counties. “Year in Review 2022,” a display of the best work of our reporters and visual journalists in our inaugural year. Ralph Schwartz’s detailed examination of the killing, by police, of David Babcock, a motorist in Sedro-Woolley, with major implications for police-pursuit laws.
More recently came “Child care-less: a search for solutions,” Enterprise Reporter Audra Anderson’s comprehensive look at local child care shortages — and potential solutions — in Northwest Washington. Also on the list: “Off Target: A legacy of neglect at county rifle range,” which raises a host of questions about Whatcom County’s past — and, maybe, future — management of a rifle range with a significant toxic side effect.
Add to that two additional ongoing Special Reports: Our “Women Empowered” series, produced throughout Women’s History Month, highlights local women working in male-dominated fields. And this week marks the launch of our “Beyond Bars” series, examining local criminal justice policies, the need for a new county jail, and the collision of both with what feels like a plague of social ills — homelessness, substance addiction, mental health problems — contributing to crime, making a modern jail necessary in the first place.
And don't forget last fall's “Citizens Agenda” project and the CDN Voter Guide, putting coverage of local elections back in the hands of voters, and weighing in with candidate endorsements. That's something we'll repeat and expand this fall.
All of these in-depth presentations touch on issues of major civic import. The jail project, however, brings its own urgency. Many of us have followed or walked the twisted path of attempts to replace Bellingham’s crumbling jail complex. Many of us, I suspect, also alternately float both directions on the tides of this argument.
As a local resident for two decades, I see the need for a facility to allow for proper, humane law enforcement — a priority hastened by what feels like a significant bump in crime in our midst, whether real or perceived.
I also have heard, and agree with, the passionate arguments about the need to reform our criminal justice system to keep more people, particularly those facing systemic life disadvantages, out of jail in the first place.
Our series, I think, makes one thing glaringly clear: Whichever side of that fence you stand on (or balance precariously atop), Whatcom County needs a new jail. The argument in the coming months will be about how big, under what goals and principles, and other fine points.
But let's stay focused here: The current facility is, as both Sheriff Bill Elfo and some inmates quoted in our story agree, inhumane. It’s an injustice not only to inmates, but to the corrections officers, police, attorneys, public defenders and workers who frequent the jail daily.
It's tough to look at the reporting and imagery inside the jail and not be reminded of the adage about judging a society by how it treats its most vulnerable.
Yes, “vulnerable” is a relative term here. Most of the folks in our jail are there for a reason. And nobody believes incarceration should come with Marriott Points and fruit baskets. The purpose is confinement, punishment and, it can be hoped, rehabilitation.
Yet at the heart of that equation is the notion, long held by Americans that every human being, regardless of circumstance, has basic rights and deserves fundamental dignity. The conditions of our jail argue loudly that we, as a community, have let that principle slip.
It's clear that the long-running argument about the jail problem draws weary sighs from most people, long tired of the bickering about size, cost, and especially, levy amounts. But it’s time we the people stepped up to the plate to solve the problem.
Maybe this is an occasion where the broad swaths of smart, passionate people here in the navel of the Salish Sea can start anew, act swiftly, and send a signal that human dignity is a principle deeper here than the local crumbling sandstone. Maybe not.
Opportunities for leadership abound here. Step right up.
Either way, we’ll be here to report what happens. CDN’s newsroom hopes that our jail reporting, a cooperative project with KMRE Community Radio and local student journalists, lays its own foundation for clear, contextual, civic-minded journalism that gets to the root of problems, no matter how complex. We’re enthusiastically open to more of the same teamwork.
Ron Judd's column appears on Wednesdays; firstname.lastname@example.org; @roncjudd.