Guest editorial: the state of the Whatcom County Jail

Whatcom County is obligated to operate its county jail system in a safe, humane and constitutional manner. Today, it is often nearly impossible to meet those required conditions. We are constantly overcrowded and our jail is continually challenged by failing infrastructure along with serious problems with our life-safety and security systems.

These requirements are also not possible to meet with the lack of space for mental and medical health evaluation, treatment and special housing needs. With no options for remedying this situation on the horizon, it is necessary to reduce and limit the inmate population of the jail.

Whatcom County is legally responsible for housing those charged, sentenced or otherwise ordered held in custody by the district and superior courts as well as those booked by law enforcement agencies on charges answerable in these courts.

This includes those charged or sentenced on felony charges (including those made by city police officers) and those wanted in other counties and states.

City and Native American governments are legally responsible for housing those charged with misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors in their respective jurisdictions. For many years the county provided jail services, including alternatives to incarceration, for these governments through an inter-local agreement that expired last year.

To ensure a balance between proper jail safety, providing the infrastructure needed for the effective administration of justice and ensuring the safety of the community, we want to continue to accept and book those arrested or ordered incarcerated by municipal and tribal courts on misdemeanor charges.

When maximum capacity is reached in the jail, jurisdictions using the jail will be asked to arrange for the removal of their offenders from the facility. This will normally involve a timely and orderly transfer of inmates not released by judges on their own recognizance or bail.

It is my intent to do all that is reasonably possible to avoid “booking restrictions.” These restrictions which were in effect a decade ago precluded law enforcement officers from jailing misdemeanor offenders, including those arrested on charges such as driving under the influence, assault, theft or ordered arrested by judges through the issuance of arrest warrants.

The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office has been working with local jurisdictions to coordinate and identify solutions including using jail space in other parts of the state. Surplus modern jail space with robust behavioral health, treatment and medical facilities is available near Seattle. The sheriff’s office operates a regional inmate transportation network which is available to provide regular transportation.

Other governments are finding solutions they feel work best for their community. For example, the city of Bellingham will begin providing pre-trial supervision to reduce jail incarceration needs as well as sending some offenders to jail in Yakima. I have asked the city to consider decriminalizing portions of its legal code, which in the past has resulted in their using limited jail spaces for such charges as sleeping on the sidewalk, garbage violations and other violations of its code.

The Lummi Nation is transferring inmates serving multi-year consecutive sentences to other tribally operated facilities. The Nooksack Tribe has also found a tribal jail to meet their needs. The smaller cities are in the process of selecting and contracting with other jails.

To free up jail space to meet the needs of local jurisdictions, the sheriff’s office is working with the Washington State Department of Corrections to wind down our practice of providing short-term jail space for those in our community who violate the conditions of their release from state prisons. Our office is also continuing to maximize the use of jail alternative programming including work crews, work release and electronic home monitoring.

I am also working with the Whatcom County Executive to determine what structural and system changes might be made in the jail to strengthen the structure, improve life-safety and provide increased space for mental and medical health services.

While these changes are likely very expensive, this will provide elected officials with a cost-benefit analysis to compare the wisdom of spending funds on the existing facility or moving forward with a plan to replace the jail.

The sheriff’s office is also participating in the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. For decades, law enforcement leaders and the mental health community have advocated for preventing incarceration through community-based treatment prior to crimes being committed and for a fully functional behavioral health triage center as an alternative to jail.

I’m pleased the task force is working on recommendations towards that goal and other changes to the justice system that may reduce future jail space needs.

While taking action that will result in inmates being removed from their community and families is not ideal, neither is leaving them in our county jail, which has been reported by architects, engineers, multiple citizen committees, fire officials and the National Institute of Corrections as posing serious threats to human life.

As sheriff I will work closely with other officials to minimize disruption and ensure as smooth a transition as possible in reaching a safer and humane jail for our community.

Bill Elfo, 

Whatcom County Sheriff

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