Whatcom Democrats’ resolution identifying flaws in the proposed jail ballot measure, and offering alternative solutions is an effort to influence public opinion to prevent long-overdue construction of critical county infrastructure.
The U.S. Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) defines critical infrastructure as “assets, systems and networks that provide functions necessary for our way of life.”
From their resolution: “WHEREAS the community needs a robust discussion and the community must find solutions at all levels of government that address true public safety by reducing incarceration and fully funding diversion programs, treatment, ending cash bail, harm reduction approaches, and building more affordable and supportive housing.”
The community has had robust discussions on these issues for many years. The community has also worked diligently to identify and implement local solutions. For example: the Whatcom Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) program and the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program.
On Jan. 26, Whatcom County's Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the Justice Project approved a motion recommending the final Justice Project Needs Assessment Report to the Whatcom County Council.
On July 11, 2023, County Council passed Ordinance No. 2023-039 adopting the Implementation Plan and authorizing the submission of a ballot measure to the voters of Whatcom County for a sales and use tax for public health, safety and justice facilities and services.
In his recent article for Cascadia Daily News (CDN, Sept. 1, 2023), Andrew Reding (chair of Whatcom Democrats) is promoting “... a 'no' vote on the jail measure.”
This is the third time in eight years Whatcom Democrats have opposed jail-funding ballot measures for one reason or another. Whatcom Democrats' continued intransigence on this issue is helping to perpetuate decades of systemic failure. At this point a no vote on the jail measure is a yes vote for institutional cruelty. For those who believe that statement is hyperbole, please watch the Whatcom County Jail Tour video.
Building a new jail facility and addressing social injustice are not mutually exclusive endeavors. Conflating critical county infrastructure with national political issues such as affordable housing, bail reform and ending mass incarceration is unreasonable.
The vast majority of Americans support reforming the criminal justice system, ending mass incarceration and confronting racial injustice. Refusing to support public funding for the needed construction of critical county infrastructure will not expedite these reforms or address public safety issues. Defunding Whatcom County's jail is not a realistic approach to criminal justice reform.
Cash bail is a poverty penalty that harms our community and disproportionately hurts minority populations. A person’s inability to pay bail can result in unnecessary incarceration, lost wages, job loss and homelessness, further destabilizing their life and the community. While this issue is not unique to Whatcom County, local solutions are possible when enough serious adults act in good faith. I support ending money bail. I also support CALEA and WASPC accreditation for Whatcom County Sheriff's Office. (CALEA programs provide public safety agencies with an opportunity to voluntarily meet an established set of professional standards. WASPC, Washington Association of Sheriffs & Police Chiefs, leads collaboration among law enforcement executives to enhance public safety.)
Whatcom Democrats’ resolution is promoting “a downtown location adjacent to the courthouse.” Downtown Bellingham is by far the most expensive location to build, staff, manage and maintain a new jail facility. Regardless of where the new jail is located or how this effort is funded (sales tax and/or property tax), it is unlikely that construction costs associated with building a new jail facility will ever be as low as they are today. Every day of delay, the more Whatcom County taxpayers will pay.
Building a new jail facility is not optional. It is critical county infrastructure. It is necessary for public safety. It will reduce human suffering. Whatcom County needs a new jail.
RB Tewksbury is a Bellingham resident, entrepreneur and philanthropist who served on Whatcom County's Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the Justice Project. He is one of three current Whatcom County Civil Service Commissioners and is a member of the County’s Business and Commerce Advisory Committee.