Skip to content

The Cascadia Daily reports on plans for funding a new jail and services facilities

In March 2023, the Cascadia Daily published a series of four articles titled Beyond Bars: the Future of Justice in Whatcom County. In these investigative reports, they explain Whatcom County’s plan to approach voters with a 2023 jail replacement funding proposal. For your convenience and information, we summarized the main points of these articles below.

Part 1 and Part 2: The current facility-constructed in the 1980s in response to a Legislative Jail Commission construction mandate-was deemed by some to be inadequate as early as 1996. The following year a levy measure designed to counter jail overcrowding failed. In 2004, Whatcom voters approved a sales tax to pay for construction and operation of a minimum-security Work Center, with some funds to be directed to constructing a 700-bed jail. The tax is still being collected, but funds for jail construction were re-allocated to operating the Work Center.  Two ballot measures to approve additional taxpayer funding for a new jail, in 2015 and 2017, failed, in part due to a lack of public-facing community engagement in developing the levy proposals. Public sentiment prioritized a need for services versus expanding the jail.

There is consensus that the existing jail is outdated, and inadequate. Reporting highlights overcrowding, less-than-sanitary conditions, and limited options for delivering in-house services. Whatcom County is now in the process of developing a third package to fund jail construction. A Stakeholder Advisory Committee convened in 2019 to ‘bring a diversity of voices to jail planning’. Sidelined by COVID-19, the committee began work developing a community-wide services needs assessment in January 2022. County Council members, with the services needs assessment data in hand, are in the process of deciding whether-and how-to approach voters in November 2023 with another proposal for funding jail construction. Their decision is due in July.

Part 3 and Part 4: Cascadia reporters explored “the big three” social issues informing discussions about the county’s criminal justice system, including a new jail. The frequency and severity of homelessness, mental illness, and substance use disorder were identified as ‘the big three’ issues that continue to increase in the county, without corresponding increases in access to remedies. The “big three” can facilitate illegal behavior. Without adequate alternate services, the criminal justice system, including a jail stay, remains the default management strategy.

The most strident public voices demand a new jail to mitigate a crime wave that’s not reflected in data. Subjective feelings of public vulnerability argue for “consequences” and “accountability” for anti-social behavior. County officials recognize that addressing the root causes of undesirable behavior is key to change. Arrest and jailing do not deter the “big three” issues, as data supports.

The jail has seen a nearly triple increase in the number of inmates experiencing a serious mental illness within the last decade. Many require a clinical intervention in a state institution before they can participate in a judicial process, but access to the required intervention is delayed for lack of bed space at a suitable state facility. The mentally-ill person remains in a county jail bed, without trial, often for periods that exceed the lawful sentence they would typically have received from a court action.

More than two-thirds of the jail population has substance disorder issues and have no suitable, stable housing at the time of arrest. A lack of transitional housing to support post-release recovery is a barrier to change strategies. A jail stay can undermine any existing stability in housing, employment, and support structures. Access to both inpatient and outpatient substance disorder treatment is constrained by funding and workforce shortages.

The county’s voluntary 32-bed crisis stabilization center, opened in 2021, is far from meeting the needs created by “the big three”. In the absence of alternatives, a jail stay remains the default.   

Whatcom County’s LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program for ‘low level offenders’ deploys case managers to help clients with housing, substance disorder treatment and employment. LEAD and GRACE (Ground-Level Response And Coordinated Engagement) prioritize basic-needs assistance over warehousing in jail. Recommended to the county by the Vera Institute of Justice in 2017, the programs are working to keep people out of jail, supported by participants, and saving voters money. Even with those very-limited programs in place, the jail’s shortcomings persist.

In 2013 Skagit County voters, favoring rehabilitation over incarceration, approved a sales tax measure to fund jail construction by 72% of the vote. Mental health, education and employment programs were part of the funded package, and the jail has been able to remain significantly within capacity. Nashville, Tennessee, funded an urgent care center, and a jail-alternative behavioral care center adjoining the jail, for misdemeanants. Those completing the behavioral care program qualify for outpatient continuing care resources and can have their charges dropped. Nashville officials project up to 2,000 people will receive treatment at the center annually, but during a Whatcom officials’ site visit only half the beds were filled.

After a year-long study, the Whatcom County Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee collated a 110-page needs assessment report, informing a jail construction levy proposal. The needs assessment does not propose a jail construction location, capacity, design, or cost. How mental health and substance disorder treatment will intersect with the proposed jail is undetermined, as is how any voter-approved funding will support community-based housing and/or treatment. 

County officials estimate a six-year timeframe to bring a construction plan to fruition. If the council approves a 0.2% sales tax ballot measure, jail planners will begin to determine how much of the funds available could be directed to services. There is not yet a plan for making up the likely difference.  

Cascadia Daily sources: Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Democrats chair Andrew Reding, Whatcom Community College instructor David Goldman, Chief Deputy Public Defender Maialisa Vanyo, Whatcom County Chief Corrections Deputy Wendy Jones, Lifeline Connections Jail Re-entry Specialist Lindsey Clark, Stakeholder Advisory Committee member Brooke Eolande, Whatcom County Council Chairman Barry Buchanan, and anonymous persons with lived experience.