LOCKUP LOCKSTEP: Imagine a game show in which contestants must choose between two doors to move on to the final round. The catch is—whichever door they choose, there is a burly Sheriff on the other side eager to lay down some hurt on the contestants.
In June, the City of Bellingham approved a new Jail Facilities Use Agreement (JFUA) with the county in response to the announcement by Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo that he intended to reduce the population in the main jail following the outcome of a 2015 voter initiative to fund and construct a big new corrections facility. The sales tax measure passed weakly in the rural county but was rejected strongly by Bellingham voters—in part because of the disproportionate costs such a $100 million facility would impose on the city and its taxpayers.
The jail use agreement crafted with the county included two options. The first option, Door Number One, was similar in construction to past JFUAs with Bellingham, with certain assurances of capacity but that also contained a poison pill that required the city to move its misdemeanor inmates out of the jail within hours of notification of a capacity restriction. Door Number Two yielded the city more time and flexibility with transporting inmates out of the jail upon notification, but reduced assurances of capacity for misdemeanor inmates charged through the city’s criminal code.
Since the beginning of the year, Bellingham Police and municipal court have taken steps to dramatically reduce the number of criminal misdemeanants (those charged solely with misdemeanors under the city’s criminal code) who are booked in county jail. On average since the start of the year, only about five inmates are housed in county jail that are there under the sole responsibility and authority of COB; the county is responsible and holds authority for felony bookings and those booked on charges from multiple jurisdictions.
Bellingham Municipal Court added an additional reasonable restriction—that only those actually convicted of a crime should be transported to a remote facility.
That leaves about three kinds of inmates Bellingham routinely sends to county jail: People awaiting a mental competency examination, and those charged with DUI or domestic violence infractions. The rest are nearly all, including those awaiting trial, handled by a suite of corrections alternatives. But, predictably, DUIs and DVs can spike on weekends and trigger capacity thresholds.
Bellingham chose Door Number Two; but hardly had the ink dried on the agreement before the Sheriff announced even more severe restrictions on booking capacity.
“In the event the main jail population rises above 212 inmates, corrections personnel will not accept for booking offenders arrested by Bellingham Police officers solely for any gross misdemeanors or misdemeanors,” the Sheriff wrote in a special order. Eighteen months ago, when the Sheriff was trying to make a point to voters about horrific crowded conditions at the county jail, sustained average daily population was stuffed well above 300, according to county records. Meanwhile, the work detention center—which can house up to 150 minimum-security inmates and take some pressure off the main jail—has been operating a half to two-thirds of its capacity since the start of the year.
“Offers were made to all cities for contracts that would continue to facilitate booking all persons arrested by officers until their first appearance in court,” Sheriff Elfo stated. “I further offered to hold those offenders not released at their initial appearance until they could be transferred to another jail facility elsewhere in the state. I offered flexibility and to work cooperatively with all jurisdictions to ensure a safe, orderly and timely transfer.
“All cities except Bellingham agreed to this arrangement,” Elfo said.
Yes; at the population nucleus of county crimes against persons and property, Bellingham Police are busier than all the other city cops put together, citing both misdemeanors and felonies. They deserve jail support, not jail sanctions.
“Bellingham articulated a need and desire to continue to detain those not released following their first court appearance. This need was solidified when the Municipal Judge issued an order prohibiting the city from transferring pre-trial offenders outside of Whatcom County,” Elfo noted. “To meet its needs, Bellingham proposed that the county retain the right to impose booking restrictions if needed to control the jail population.”
The mayor and city attorneys are emphatic in their response: They have never supported booking restrictions but acknowledge that the authority to impose such restrictions, under any agreement or option, rests with the County Sheriff’s Office.
What Elfo calls the city proposing a jail restriction, the city characterizes as submitting to an offer they could not refuse: Restrictions were threatened under either option.
“One of my frustrations for over a year now has been that Sheriff Elfo repeatedly misrepresents the city’s position,” City Council member Michael Lilliquist said, “usually implying or stating that the city is ‘choosing’ this situation, or wants things a certain way. For example, he says that the city wanted the current booking restriction agreement, when we wanted something quite different. We were hemmed in by the county on the one side and by Municipal Court rulings on the other,” Lilliquist explained. “Similarly, last year Elfo repeatedly suggested that Bellingham wanted to handle our own inmates and maybe ‘go our own way’ on the jail, when we have consistently called for one jail paid for fairly by everyone.”
“We have gone to extraordinary lengths to reduce the numbers in jail, to look at jail alternatives., to enact programs,” Council member Terry Bornemann agreed. “This feels like pure retaliation because we did not fall in lockstep with the big jail proposal.”
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