Guest Editorial: New jail is a necessity

Published on Wed, Oct 23, 2013 by Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Sheriff

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As Whatcom County seeks citizen input on the proposed 521-inmate jail, it is important to highlight the process used to determine the size of the facility and measures taken to offer alternatives and reduce the growth of future jail needs.

After nearly two years of research, community input and consultation with national experts, the 13-member council-created Jail Planning Task Force unanimously reported on “critical life-safety” issues requiring that the jail be replaced; concluded that a 500 to 700 inmate facility operating at 80 to 85 percent of its design capacity was needed; emphasized including space for expanding mental health, educational, vocational and work programs; highlighted the need to plan for future long-term expansion and recommended that the county retain a jail planner to refine projections and facilitate recommendations.

The county hired a leading jail planning firm that determined Whatcom County needs a jail to accommodate 521 inmates with a long-term expansion capacity to 649 inmates. It further recommended the inclusion of space for all of the educational and mental health programming recommended by the task force.

Despite legislation that continually shifts responsibility for housing felons from state prisons to county jails and that mandates arrests and sets minimum sentencing requirements for misdemeanor offenses (primarily domestic violence and DUI), components of our local law and justice system implemented programs that successfully reduced the growth in our jail population and lowered previous projections on jail capacity needs.

The prosecutor’s “fast-track” program expedited the process of bringing felony cases before the courts and contributed to reducing the average length of pretrial detentions from 26 to 20 days. Drug court offers eligible offenders the option of treatment rather than incarceration.

District Court probation has enjoyed phenomenal success with mental health specialists who work with the mentally ill (including veterans suffering PTSD) who would otherwise occupy a disproportionate amount of jail space. Success rates increased from 28 to 75 percent. 

One person with schizo-affective disorder and a long history of DUI was booked into jail 53 times. Since entering the program he has been clean, sober and out of jail for 18 months. At the sheriff’s office, mental health professionals now work with offenders to diagnose, treat and connect them with community-based services upon their release – reducing the likelihood of returning to jail.

The sheriff’s office operates the most robust jail alternative programs in Washington, which include the use of electronic home monitoring in lieu of incarceration, the option of avoiding jail time by working on community projects and jail work crews that perform thousands of hours of public service work. Jail work and education programs allow eligible offenders to retain their jobs or continue their education.

Despite successes, many challenges and opportunities remain.

The number of dangerously violent mentally ill offenders held in jail has dramatically increased as state funding for Western State Hospital has decreased. Resulting backlogs for diagnosis and treatment can now take months. In the interim, the jail is ill equipped to house, treat or effectively supervise these offenders. The proposed jail will provide 14 rooms to more effectively and safely facilitate these services.

Many minor offenders could be diverted from the criminal justice to the mental health system if a fully functional mental health triage facility were available. While state law provides for diverting persons suspected of committing certain nonviolent misdemeanor offenses, it provided no funding. 

The county has appropriated $3 million for such services and the health department continues to explore options for operating the facility.

People should not have to be arrested to access mental health services. Dramatic reductions at state and federal levels have reduced options for community-based treatment. The county has filled some of these voids by funding a variety of programs that include behavioral health services at all seven school districts, community-based mental health and substance abuse treatment and services for the chronically homeless and chemically dependent.

Evidence-based research demonstrates that juvenile detention alternative programs can successfully reduce the number of incarcerated juveniles and enjoy enormous success in preventing adult crime. 

Initiatives at the state level are proposing to restore funding for these programs, and I am serving on a committee that is working on a series of recommendations to the legislature and counties.

The law and judges determine who is in jail. The sheriff and the county have the responsibility of operating the jail in a safe and constitutional manner. 

While various programs have achieved success in changing lives, most function on a “carrot-and-stick” model and it is necessary to maintain a facility where those representing risk to the community can be safely held. 

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