Building a bigger jail in an era of lesser crime

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Planning the right size jail is guesswork even in the most certain times. It requires a certain pessimism (some might say realism) about the human condition and the capacity to do wrong, offset by optimism (some might say faith) in the power of the judicial system to rehabilitate, educate and seek alternatives to incarceration. It is informed by bubbles moving through time—in particular demographics and population growth based on historic trends—and a deep understanding of the challenges and limitations of modern security systems. It is hindered by “known unknowns” such as land capacity and suitability, as well as crime trends unfolding in real time. And it is imperiled by “unknown unknowns,” such as social trends and changes in law that fundamentally alter who we jail and how.

For now, jail planners are focused on more certain “unknowns” such as land availability and suitability, Whatcom County Council learned in a presentation on June 4. A site has been selected on 40 acres at the northwest corner of LaBounty Drive and Sunset Avenue in Ferndale, a parcel large enough to accommodate a jail facility and associated law enforcement offices of considerable size.

Property southwest of the jail site was used in the 1970s and ‘80s as a garbage incineration and recovery operation run by Thermal Reduction Co., according to studies by the state Department of Ecology. Thermal Reduction dumped waste ash into a pit immediately south of the site. Once opened as a dump, the property received additional hazardous materials, including “demolition asbestos, pesticides and waste catalyst from Mobil Oil Co.,” Ecology noted in 1985. The dump site has since been capped and paved over, but a full environmental review is required to learn of its suitability for a jail near the site.

A new jail is the consuming passion of Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo, a pledge he made to the community to measurably improve law enforcement outcomes.

At the urging of Elfo, County Executive Jack Louws in April directed a jail planning consultant, Shockey Planning Group, to proceed with Phase II and Phase III of a supplemental environmental impact statement (SEIS) process for planning of a new Whatcom County Correctional Center. The county will update the previous 2010 environmental impact statement as part of this process. Results of the revised SEIS, including public comments, are scheduled to be reviewed by Whatcom County Council in early August, according to a briefing provided to council by jail planners earlier this month, including cost estimates for a new facility.

Fewer than 30 people attended an initial environmental scoping meeting held—unusually for the county—in Ferndale. Several dozen more public comments were submitted before the comment period closed at the end of May.

Most comments focused on the size of the jail and its associated support facilities, which critics say is too large. Others insist the jail must be built near existing justice facilities, including the County Courthouse in Bellingham.

In April 2011, Whatcom County Council enacted a resolution establishing a “Jail Planning Task Force” to respond to these emerging concerns. The JPTF presented its unanimous conclusions to the council in a public meeting last April.

“Due to overcrowding, life/safety and physical plant concerns in the main jail facility, Whatcom County needs a new jail,” JPTF representatives noted, describing the need as “critical.”

Few dispute the need for a new facility to replace the aging jail at the Whatcom County Courthouse. That facility has been beyond its design capacity almost from the moment the jail was completed in the late ‘80s, according to data provided by the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. Designed to house 110 inmates, the current jail averaged 250 inmates through much of the past two decades. Since 1989, the number of inmates has exceeded capacity every day. Design changes in 2007—including the addition of bunks in nonhousing areas—increased that number to more than 400 inmates, crowded into cramped, dangerous conditions.

Currently, the combined capacity at the courthouse jail and the interim work center is 390. The facility has held as many as 474 inmates, Louws reported to council on June 4. Infrastructure, including electronic security, plumbing and ducting, are woefully in need of upgrade, council was told.

A riot in the maximum-security cellblock last October brought home the realities of the aging facility, where a particularly dangerous group of inmates caused about $10,000 property damage and sent one inmate to the hospital. The inmates—several of them held on charges of robbery, assault and kidnapping—flooded toilets, pried off cell locks and ripped chunks of the heating system off of the walls of D block, according to Sheriff’s reports.

“Like few other infrastructure projects, the jail site acquisition and building process is about the impact on human populations since the entire purpose of the site is about housing citizens who are going through our legal and justice system,” noted Joy Gilfilen, president of the ReEntry Coalition of Whatcom County. The coalition emphasizes alternatives to incarceration.

“Everything concerning this process has multiple ripple effects throughout the citizenry and impacts the ‘human environment,’ safety, wellness and vitality of our community,” she said.

“The new jail must provide a well-developed and well-staffed mental health and addiction program,” Arlene Feld urged, noting that those services are also concentrated in Bellingham. “This is important enough to trade some beds for it.”

On the crucial subject of beds, several comments questioned both the number of beds and the method used to determine that number. Louws told council the current estimate of 660 beds is only one of a number of scenarios. Numbers between 500 and 700 are tossed about, but usually center on the high end.

The scoping report asks for 660 beds in a Phase 1 construction, then it expands to 800 in Phase 2 construction. The size of the proposed site also allows for a Phase 3 expansion. Early estimates of the cost of the facility exceeded $150 million, a number greatly influenced by the size and scope of the completed facility.

Public Safety Now, a community group focused on the urgent creation of a new jail, stressed a new facility needs to include an inmate work center, must be sited in a geographically central location, should be horizontally constructed for efficient operations and future expansion, and contain 600 to 750 beds. The site needs to also accommodate Sheriff’s Office support and law enforcement operations, they maintain. The group has strong ties to the Sheriff and administration.

“The $150 million price tag was a rough estimate, based on data available at the time,” the group maintains. “The estimate was rejected by the Whatcom County government as being too expensive, and further investigation was started to find a way of replacing the current main jail facility with something that is safe, effective and affordable. Although a new replacement jail will be the most expensive capital project our county will undertake, it is necessary for several reasons.

“The first is that our unsafe, deteriorating jail puts our county and the taxpayers at significant risk of a major lawsuit, which could result in a multi-million dollar settlement to an offender or their family.

“The second reason is that over the life of a jail, the operating costs will be 10 to 20 times the capital cost of the jail. As we continue to operate and maintain our poorly designed and deteriorating jail, the costs to operate and maintain this inadequate facility will just keep increasing, thereby throwing good money after bad.”

In remarks to council earlier this month, Louws admitted guesswork about jail size informs the siting process as much as it is informed by the process. Illustrating the circularity, the county needed to have a particular size in mind to hire a qualified jail planner; and the jail planner has the professional qualifications necessary to help the county better understand the ultimate size of the facility. Louws expects a clearer picture when details of the SEIS emerge in August.

“The jail size issue and the programming issues that we have with this facility… for the next 20 to 25 years is virtually impossible to comprehend,” Louws told the council.

The county selected IDLR-Group, a leader in modern jail planning and design, to assess jail housing needs; recommend system changes to reduce future jail needs; and estimate costs.

Louws also convened an executive committee of professionals and architects with expertise in public facilities, land use, corrections, and law enforcement. He tasked this group with establishing site-selection criteria. The comprehensive review of environmental impacts and opportunities for public comment will occur prior to recommending that council authorize the purchase of any site.

Yet the DNA of a large jail was woven early on.

The Jail Planning Task Force (JPTF) created by council in 2011 was formed to correct early missteps by the county in planning the size and scope of its jail.

In 1999 and 2000, faced with a chronic jail overcrowding problem, Whatcom County sponsored an analysis and planning process to identify causes and solutions. The resulting Law and Justice Plan was developed by the Law and Justice Council (LJC) and adopted by the County Council in June 2000, revised again in 2006.

That plan called for a “jail large enough to meet the projected demand, 800 to 1,000 beds, with full-spectrum security from minimum to maximum, including alternative corrections programs. Enough beds should be available as a sanction to enforce compliance in alternative programs. Plan the facility so that it could be expanded to 2,000 beds if necessary within the following 20-year period,” the justice council recommended in 2008.

Two thousand beds?

The proposal was widely derided by critics, who noted the LJC was formed almost exclusively of law enforcement experts with limited involvement by mental health and social services professionals. Moreover, the process itself was largely one of wishful law-dog groupthink in an era of exploding “Drug War” crime rates and a county population trend mushrooming in the economic boom of the late ’90s.

The LJC comment that a large number of beds should operate as a threat to force inmates to seek sentencing alternatives is deeply informing; the opposite, a constriction of capacity, has been proposed by supporters of a smaller jail as a means of forcing judges and prosecutors to seek sentencing alternatives.

Indeed, an entire suite of successful sentencing alternatives—from drug court, to mental health counseling, to electronic home detention (EHD), work and school release, even gruesome tours of the jail for at-risk offenders—have all emerged as a result of reduced capacity at the current facility. Judges and prosecutors have had to get creative, and their creativity has borne results.

The revised JPTF attempted to correct some of the overreach of the earlier LJC, including a broader representation by community members and supporters of sentencing alternatives. Yet the low end of the LJC recommendation is now the mid-range cited by jail planners, and the number that continues to be widely cited by the county administration and executive planing group. Louws’ top-down executive committee, smaller than the original JPTF, seems constructed along the lines of the flawed LJC—missing the guiding opinions of groups like the ReEntry Coalition.

Other forces continue to press from other directions.

The surge in population growth has fallen off considerably in Whatcom County, easing a demographic pressure for more beds. But even more remarkable, crime has plummeted. Plummeting most markedly are those Class A offenses—violent crimes against persons and property—that typically draw jail time.

Violent crime has been on the decline for nearly a decade in Whatcom County, as it has nationally, according to the Washington Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) using data provided by local police. Only property crimes like larceny and vandalism hold steady when compared to previous years. Of violent crimes reported against persons statewide in 2012, half (49.5 percent) were related to domestic violence. And—as any cop will tell you—they’re a poor and expensive choice for marriage counselors. More generally, Millennials seem of a different breed in the crimes they commit, their patterns of recidivism markedly different.

A small change in law enforcement imperatives could yield huge effects in future jail populations. Simply removing a crime from the books might sharply reduce both incidence of crime and convictions for related crimes.

In 2012, the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile & Criminal Justice (CJCJ) released a policy briefing with an analysis of arrest data collected by the California Department of Justice’s Criminal Justice Statistics Center. The report found state marijuana decriminalization efforts introduced in 2011 had dropped the arrest rate among juveniles by a staggering 20 percent, with a 61 percent drop in drug arrests, a level not seen since the 1980s.

California’s 2010 law did not legalize marijuana, but knocked down “simple” possession of less than one ounce to an infraction from a misdemeanor. Police don’t arrest people for infractions; usually, they just ticket them.

Washington took the effort a step beyond in November, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, clearing caseloads from local criminal justice efforts. While uniform crime data is unavailable since the new law took effect in November, we might expect statistics similar to those in California as law enforcement resources are marshaled in other ways.

Marijuana possession comprised 47.5 percent of all drug arrests in Bellingham in 2012, according to the Washington Uniform Crime Reporting (UCR) data provided by local police. In Blaine, nearly four drug violations in five were for marijuana possession in 2012.

“We do not hold many inmates solely on possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Sheriff Elfo noted recently in a policy brief. “This charge may be included in a list of charges that brings an inmate to jail, but rarely is the only reason they are in custody. A data search for 2010 indicates that 19 people were booked solely on a charge of possession of a small amount of marijuana. The total number of bookings in 2010 was 7,811, meaning that for our facility, 0.24 percent of the bookings were due to possession of small amounts of marijuana.

“These 19 people spent a combined total of 12 days in custody. The total number of days spent in jail by all offenders booked into the Whatcom County Jail system was 153,244. This means that last year, 0.008 percent of the jail beds were used for individuals serving time for possession of a small amount of marijuana.”

Others protest that the easy telltale of marijuana smoke is what frequently draws the attention of law enforcement in the first place, a gateway drug to a different sort of gate. Jailable charges are often drizzled over weed possession like oil over a salad.

“This whole jail is about moving, housing and controlling people,” Gilfilen noted in her comments. “It is a human impact process… inside and out. It is about changing the civic center, changing everything about how we administer justice in our community, changing the traffic and living and working patterns of our city and county. Therefore the impact on people, our community and society as a whole should be studied.

“If not studied now, then when, and by who?”

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