Sheriff takes steps to reduce jail population

Jail_SG-2By Ian Ferguson

Starting January 1, the Whatcom County Jail will take steps to reduce its population of inmates, with the option of transferring inmates who were booked by police in any of the six cities in the county to a facility outside the county.

On December 8, Whatcom County Council approved six-month contract extensions to provide jail services to Blaine, Bellingham, Lynden, Ferndale, Everson and Sumas. The contracts include amendments aimed at reducing the jail population. Under the amendments, cities must ensure their booked offenders have a judicial review or court appearance within 24 hours of booking. If the sheriff determines there is no room for new arrests, the cities will have six hours after the first court appearance or judicial review to take back inmates or transfer them elsewhere, assuming the offender is not released or can’t make bail. The sheriff can also give cities a 24-hour notice to transfer an inmate already serving a sentence.

Bellingham mayor Kelli Linville said the deadline requirements for transferring newly booked inmates would be problematic, although she agreed with the 24-hour notice for inmates already serving sentences. Following a series of emails and meetings, Linville and sheriff Bill Elfo agreed that a 72-hour notice would be a workable solution. Although the wording of the amendments was not changed, Elfo told county council members at a meeting of the public health and safety committee that he would honor the compromise.

“We still have the discretion to allow more time to transfer inmates because of the wording ‘or at other time agreed to by the sheriff,’” Elfo said. “If I get a letter from the mayor that agrees to the 72 hours, I certainly give my word to honor that and make it work.”

The county jail is legally responsible for detaining and housing inmates whose case originated in Whatcom County outside municipal jurisdiction, and provides jail services to municipalities through contractual agreements. By law, the county is required to accept all accused and convicted felons whose case originated anywhere in the county, including the six cities.

Sheriff Bill Elfo had said before the November 3 elections, when voters shot down a sales tax measure to pay for a new jail, that he would work to reduce the prison population regardless of whether or not the measure passed. Elfo cited inhumane conditions and liability issues caused by overcrowding in the aging downtown facility as the impetus for reducing the prison population.

The current jail facility, built in 1984, has 283 permanent beds. Including portable beds, the total jail capacity is 298. In 2014, the average daily county inmate population was 403.

The wording of the city contract extensions gives the sheriff broad authority to determine whether the jail population should be reduced. It states: “If circumstances require the County to reduce services, such reductions shall be made at the sole discretion of the Sheriff in light of his assessment of potential overcrowding; challenges in maintaining critical infrastructure, life-safety, and security systems; increasing behavioral and security concerns regarding the inmate population; and other factors judged by the Sheriff to be relevant.”

Linville said Bellingham transferees would be sent to a jail in Yakima. Another option is to send inmates to a jail in south King County.

“I agree that we need to reduce the inmates in the jail for a multitude of reasons,” Linville told council members. “Whatever the outcomes are, we’re looking at alternatives for reducing our misdemeanants from Bellingham anyway, so we’re looking at this agreement with Yakima as hopefully a stopgap measure until there are other decisions made with the task force and a potential new facility.”

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