County moves forward with planning for new jail, assesses incarceration needs

Published on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 by Sheriff Bill Elfo

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As Whatcom County prepares to replace the jail, it is important to update citizens as to the processes followed, decisions that have been made and plans to proceed.

In April 2011, the county council sought recommendations for replacing the jail. It enacted a resolution establishing a Jail Planning Task Force (JPTF). Council tasked the 13-member JPTF with making recommendations that included the size, location and programming needed to replace the current jail. The resolution required that JPTF members be appointed by the Whatcom County executive and confirmed by council. Citizen and government leaders with expertise in corrections, mental health, rehabilitation, law enforcement, county finance, architecture, construction, business and labor and experience in environmental, land use and neighborhood issues served on the JPTF.

The JPTF held 16 public meetings, solicited community input and received comments from citizens and stakeholders from throughout the criminal justice and behavioral health systems. It received professional assistance from the National Institute of Corrections and other experts. A very transparent process was followed. All agendas, minutes and reports were published on the county’s website. Media were invited to attend all meetings.

The JPTF presented its unanimous conclusions to the council in a public council meeting last April, reporting that “due to overcrowding, life/safety and physical plant concerns in the main jail facility, Whatcom County needs a new jail.” It described the need as “critical.”

“While it was beyond its expertise to determine the precise capacity needed for a new jail, it concluded that the jail should operate at 80-85 percent of its design capacity and have capacity for 500-700 inmates,” the JPTF reported. The JPTF recommended that the county retain an experienced jail planner to conduct a needs assessment and refine inmate capacity projections. The current jail system holds up to 470 inmates and offers little flexibility to adjust housing to meet fluctuating security and special housing needs.

The JPTF recommended that the jail be located reasonably close to both I-5 and the courthouse and be able to accommodate future expansion, maximize operational efficiencies and expand existing jail work programs.

County executive Louws consulted with the council and with me before implementing recommendations. Proposals were solicited from nationally recognized jail planning firms. DLR-Group, a leader in modern jail planning and design, was selected. Council accepted DLR’s proposal and unanimously approved a contract to assess jail housing needs, recommend system changes to reduce future jail needs and estimate costs. This work is proceeding consistent with national standards and best practices.

Louws also convened a group of professionals and citizens with expertise in public facilities, land use, corrections and law enforcement. He tasked this group with establishing site selection criteria. Criteria were established and proposals were solicited. Eleven proposals were received, reviewed and evaluated. All proposals and evaluations were published on the county’s website and released to the media.

A 40-acre industrially zoned and fully serviced site near I-5 in Ferndale was identified as most consistent with the selection criteria. 

DLR and other professionals are now conducting a preliminary assessment of the site to determine its viability. Prior to recommending that council authorize purchasing any site, there will be a comprehensive review of environmental impacts and opportunities for public comment.

Jail needs are influenced by population growth but are more heavily affected by factors such as decisions made by the legislature which transfers incarceration responsibilities from state prisons to county jails, laws mandating arrests and minimum jail sentences and large-scale resource reductions at the state and federal levels that dramatically limit evaluation and treatment options for mentally ill offenders.

Replacing the jail is a major undertaking that cannot be avoided. Life-safety issues, human conditions, potential taxpayer liability and extraordinary repair costs dictate this process move forward. If the Ferndale site is ultimately selected, neighborhood safety, aesthetic and traffic concerns must be responsibly addressed.

Decisions regarding the location, size and financing for the replacement jail ultimately rest with the county council. As your sheriff, I will continue to recommend a facility that is “right-sized” for our community’s needs, designed for cost-efficient operations and located at a site flexible enough to meet future requirements. 

I also will continue to advocate for improvements in our justice and mental health systems that can humanely and effectively reduce future jail needs.

Bill Elfo,
Whatcom County Sheriff