The Gristle

A Tale of Two Jails

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

A TALE OF TWO JAILS: It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but with remarkable assurance the voters of Skagit County earlier this month approved a small sales tax increase for the construction and operation of a new jail facility. The 0.3 percent sales tax (three cents on a $10 purchase) will also help boost local police and fire protection. The measure was approved by nearly three voters in four (72.8 percent), and the manner and means by which this level of public confidence was achieved in Skagit may hold lessons for Whatcom as the county inches toward construction of a new jail facility of its own.

Whatcom County Council earlier this month received the latest update on the environmental assessment being prepared for a new jail site in Ferndale.

Council learned the soils analysis on the proposed jail site proved clean, with no environmental hazards, no archaeological findings, and a thick layer of clay just under the surface suitable for a foundation for a large building. Tests also indicated no particular hazards from adjacent properties, formerly a hazardous waste landfill, according to representatives of DLR Group, the planning consultants hired by the county to scope the proposed jail.

Perhaps of greater relief to council, DLR Group recommended a lower threshold of beds the county will need to meet future capacity for criminal justice, an estimate based on county population growth projections and anticipated program and policy changes to criminal justice administration. New projections indicate a jail with 550 to 600 beds, with capacity to expand in future years.

Settling on the size of the jail has proven particularly troublesome to Whatcom County.

A blue ribbon panel assembled more than a decade ago, a period of record incarcerations and fanciful notions of for-profit jails, formed almost exclusively of law enforcement personnel and prosecutors with only limited involvement from mental health and social services professionals, recommended a jail of up to 1,000 beds, with capacity for an additional 1,000 beds. The assertion was ludicrous on the face of it, projecting double the current rates of incarceration, but it fixed in place a pernicious expectation that 800 beds would be the low threshold.

Yet Whatcom’s incarceration rate of 0.21 percent of county population is already higher than the state average; moreover, empty jails tend to fill. The Sheriff’s own statistics reinforce that last point. Jail daily population in 2006 averaged 261 inmates with booking restrictions in place, relatively unchanged for more than a decade. The following year, with booking restrictions relaxed (and, coincidentally, an aggressive public relations campaign underway for a new jail), incarceration rates soared to more than 400, almost doubling. The crime rate did not increase; the capacity to warehouse inmates in a minimal security corrections facility did increase.

The jail has a strong advocate in Sheriff Bill Elfo, who has pledged to raise public safety standards in Whatcom County. Elfo has surrounded himself with a private army of ardent, influential supporters who’ve pounded a loud drum for a large jail. Yet the sound-and-fury of a $150 million regional corrections facility, paid for by tax-averse county residents (who, historically, could barely part with revenues sufficient to fund their own ambulance service) was a concept dead on arrival. Their noise, and the echoes of noise, was met by the silence of the previous county administration, the Pete-n-Dewey Show, in an abdication of leadership in public policy, a reality check withdrawn in a perverse delight that the Sheriff should hoist by his own petard and hang by a rope of his own knotting.

Which brings us back ’round to Skagit County, also in need of a new corrections facility, although on a proposed scale smaller than Whatcom. Skagit proposes a new $60 million facility that would house 400 inmates, with capacity for future expansion.

In constructing their levy for the jail, Skagit County Commissioners were innovative.

In particular, commissioners crafted an interlocal agreement that included each Skagit city, phasing and adjusting each city’s contribution according to financial analysis, getting early buy-in from city leaders in support of the proposal. Importantly, the interlocal agreement established a finance committee with a representative from each city, along with representatives from county administration and the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office. The committee will review construction and operating costs for the proposed jail and continue to adjust the contribution of cities by population and jail use.

The creation of a review committee, controlled by the cities, greatly eases the decision of Skagit commissioners and the continued advocacy of the office of Skagit County Sheriff Will Reichardt. Small wonder, with unanimous buy-in from the cities and very specific details about jail planning in advance of their levy, the measure was passed with the confidence of voters.

Where Whatcom County pursues a top-down, adversarial/advocacy approach to its jail, with planning costs topping $1.2 million, driven almost entirely by the energy and personal charisma of Sheriff Elfo, clawed back to scale by opponents of both the size and cost of the proposed facility, fought at great cost to overall enthusiasm for the plan, Skagit proposes instead a collaborative approach that involves the cities and their residents and defers much of the plan to pure technical analysis and feasibility. And while Whatcom’s expensive jail plans are more than a decade in the brewing, we predict Skagit’s jail will be completed on a much more efficient timetable.

It’s a far, far better thing Skagit has done than Whatcom has ever known.

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