Guest Commentaries

Voters can have both: a safe jail and more treatment

Levy opponents paint wishful picture without practical solutions
September 15, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.

By Peter Frazier and Stephen Gockley, Guest Writers

Whatcom County faces growing challenges in two intersecting areas — our criminal legal system, and treatment of mental health and substance use disorders. These urgent, complex issues arise within entrenched systems requiring patience and understanding to change. To respond effectively, we must address both. 

Unlike the 2015 and 2017 jail-only proposals, this November’s levy (Prop 4) includes a comprehensive project list, carefully balanced to provide both a humane jail and critical new capacity for diverting people toward treatment and support services. Unrealistic alternatives pushed by critics (CDN, Sept. 1, 2023) do not meet these challenges.

The criminal legal system has been changing. Since 2015, we’ve created many diversion initiatives to minimize incarceration and lessen law enforcement’s involvement when possible. These include setting up early assistance programs like GRACE, LEAD and crisis response teams. We’ve built a crisis stabilization center for mental health and substance use disorder treatment, and supervised housing for Recovery Court participants. Courts use text reminders, electronic home monitoring, and alcohol detection bracelets to divert people from jail where appropriate. This work will continue and be strengthened through the levy.

Despite these efforts, our downtown jail is full, and offenders are often booked and released, or not even charged. The prosecutor now declines to charge some crimes, and courts have reduced issuance of warrants. This may explain why reported crimes are down overall. However, officials indicate many more serious crimes are occurring than before. Virtually all those now held in jail are charged with serious felonies. 

Most detainees have previous felonies on their records. About half have significant mental health problems and 80% experience substance use disorders. Most are awaiting trial, but each detainee was assessed by a judicial officer as a substantial risk to public safety if released. Pretrial circumstances are very different now than when the Vera Institute report was issued.

Anyone in our jail faces unacceptable, unsafe conditions. The current jail fails seismic safety standards, couldn’t be evacuated in a fire, violates building code and ADA requirements, and has inadequate room for medical care, attorney consultation, support services and exercise. It cannot be rehabilitated at any cost. 

Effective treatment presents problems. Fentanyl, many times more addictive than heroin, is ravaging our community with a remarkable increase in overdoses and deaths. Fentanyl and meth are such a threat that preeminent opioid-crisis journalist Sam Quinones, speaking here last month, stated that a period of incarceration was necessary for saving lives and getting people into addiction treatment.

Local capacity for substance use disorder treatment is not adequate, and treatment providers report expanding services will be daunting. Inpatient treatment is limited and usually delayed. Aftercare to maintain sobriety is not always available. Similar limitations constrain behavioral health treatment. The main problem is a shortage of trained professional staff and will take time to remedy. Hiring and retaining experienced staff is difficult with current Medicaid reimbursement rates. 

Moreover, both behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment require additional facilities to house those services. Even if treatment were readily available, state law requires that it be voluntary and many people most in need of treatment refuse to participate. This is another reason expanding diversion and treatment will be slower than anyone would like.

A diverse group of citizens, mental health professionals, first responders and community leaders participated in a comprehensive planning effort to confront these issues. Their work led to the levy proposal. They received extensive background information, assessed where improvements were needed in all systems, discussed varied viewpoints and reached consensus. 

Their recommendations balance public safety with individual health and recovery, and they do so with mechanisms for further public input and accountability. This effort included months of open meetings, actively seeking input from community members with first-hand experience with the jail, courts and treatment systems. They conducted a town hall meeting and social media surveys, and shared their recommendations and the reasons for them.

All this served to maximize public involvement and transparency. Could every question be answered, and everyone’s input be incorporated? No. Would everyone agree the exact right balance was struck? No. Is everything addressed fully? No; developing data systems and reducing inequities are prime targets for ongoing work. However, the recommendations reflect the vast majority of input received. Both in process and outcome, this work provided much of what the 2015 and 2017 levy proposals lacked.

Levy opponents paint a wishful picture without practical solutions. Their treatment-but-not-jail approach offers no answers for handling the high-risk individuals now in jail. They provide no guidance for expanding treatment capacity quickly or building facilities for new services. They discount concerns of many residents regarding the effects of growing misdemeanor crimes.

These effects are accelerated by booking restrictions and have profound impacts on community livability. If we vote “no” as they want, we’ll consign thousands more to an overcrowded, unhealthy and unsafe jail with inadequate treatment resources for years to come. That is not a humane choice. This time let’s choose a modern jail within a stronger network of treatment and support.

Stephen Gockley is a retired legal aid lawyer working to prevent and reduce incarceration. Peter Frazier is chair of the Yes! Safe Jail, Healthy Outcomes campaign committee. 

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