Guest Commentaries

Whatcom County Jail: Our courts are not the problem

Justice system has worked to curb incarceration rates
May 5, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

By Deborra Garrett, Guest Writer

A recent guest editorial argued that the Whatcom County Jail is inhumane because our local courts are uncaring and cruel. This is simply wrong. Here are some facts that editorial didn’t discuss.

Over the past decade, our county courts, attorneys, law enforcement and citizens have worked hard to reduce incarceration in a meaningful way. We have instituted diversion programs like LEAD, which brings people in drug or mental health crisis to treatment instead of prosecution, and the GRACE program, which helps vulnerable people avoid crime. 

We have established therapeutic courts including Recovery Court (formerly called Drug Court) and Mental Health Court to work with defendants toward recovery instead of jail. The Superior Court established a Pretrial Services Unit to release more defendants pretrial and help them follow the court’s pretrial release orders.

As a result of these programs, and our judges’ ongoing efforts to use incarceration only as a last resort, our incarceration rates have decreased substantially, on a per capita basis. But it’s hard to see that because of the new challenges that emerged over that same decade. 

Our population has grown (by nearly 30,000 people since 2012), and the resulting housing shortage especially affects people with limited resources. And it’s obvious — if it’s not, take a walk downtown — that drug addiction and mental health problems are truly at crisis proportions. These are not local problems — they’re happening throughout the U.S. — but they have had a huge impact on our local law enforcement and courts. 

Most defendants in the jail are awaiting trial. That’s because defendants who have been convicted of lesser crimes (sentences of one year or less are served in county jails; sentences of over a year in state penitentiaries) are usually sentenced to diversion programs, community service, electronic home monitoring and other sentences that keep them out of the jail and reserve jail space for those for whom it is truly necessary. 

It’s a good thing, of course, to keep those defendants who are charged with or convicted of low-level crimes, out of jail and into better outcomes. But it also means that defendants in the jail now are those charged with more serious crimes, and criminal histories that raise real concerns about safety if these defendants are released into the community. Attend a Superior Court hearing (see details below) and this will be evident.

Many people who are incarcerated locally are not mentally competent to stand trial. The law requires that these people be evaluated by mental health professionals, and receive treatment at Western State Hospital if necessary. This should happen quickly, but Western State Hospital is more than six months behind schedule in providing these services.

This is an ongoing problem; it is cruel to these defendants, who need treatment; and it adds to jail populations because it keeps defendants in jail until they are treated successfully. Judges here and across the state have ordered contempt sanctions for the hospital’s delays. It’s a very serious problem, but its resolution lies with the state Department of Social and Health Services and Western State Hospital, not our courts.

Most defendants are released pretrial without cash bail. If there’s evidence that a defendant will commit other crimes, or fail to come to court, the court will impose a modest bail — creating a financial incentive for the defendant to comply with the court’s orders and stay out of criminal trouble while awaiting trial. 

Even in these cases, rather than requiring a defendant to purchase a bail bond from a commercial bail company, the court generally permits a cash payment of 10% of the bond amount, to be kept by the court and refunded if the defendant follows the court’s pretrial conditions (usually, attending required hearings, avoiding new criminal charges and, in some cases, staying away from victims or witnesses).

The article contends that “Dangerous persons should not be released no matter how much money they have.” But that’s not the law: Washington’s Constitution requires a bail bond for all crimes except murder. To eliminate cash bail requires a constitutional amendment, not an order of our local courts. 

Our courts are open. Anyone can attend proceedings and read court records online or at the court clerk’s office. The Superior Court criminal motions calendars (every Tuesday and Thursday at 8:30 a.m.), and first appearance hearings (3 p.m. every day) establish each defendant’s pretrial release conditions. A daily schedule of hearings is posted at the Superior Court Clerk’s office (third floor of the courthouse) and District Court office (fourth floor). 

Our courts work hard to assure fairness and justice in challenging circumstances. Go and see for yourself.

Deborra Garrett served as a Whatcom County Superior Court judge. She retired in 2021.

Have a news tip? Email or Call/Text 360-922-3092



Register for email newsletters

* indicates required

Latest Stories

Bells open season with 2-1 win over Edmonton
Bellingham clinches victory with game-ending play at the plate

Seattle shut out for the 4th time as Rangers beat M's 2-0
Castillo limited Rangers to 1 run over 7 innings

Feds, tribes responding to mass baby salmon death in Skagit
Hundreds of dead baby chum discovered at McGlinn Island Jetty

Fifth graders are off to the races
Bellingham students compete at annual elementary school track meet

Whatcom County eyes sales tax for new jail
Council has 2 months to approve ballot measure