Whatcom Gulag

Cash-strapped county proposes a 2,400-bed jail

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

As they struggled to fund the Food Bank and a health program for mothers with infants, Whatcom County Council in October introduced a capitol Improvement plan that outlined a new jail facility of 600 beds at a cost of $41 million. The facility could serve as the first phase of the expansion outlined in the report.

In a 2008 report to council, county Deputy Administrator Dewey Desler confessed a 600-bed jail expansion may be all that the county could afford—and even that might stretch the willingness of the public to finance it.

Critics have found much to question in the jail proposal—everything from its remote location in an unincorporated area far from water and sewer service, to its design as a sprawling single-level facility, a design law enforcement officials say improves security at reduced costs. Overarching all, perhaps, is the increase in incarceration rates the facility anticipates.

When fully constructed, the Whatcom County Adult Corrections Facilities and Sheriff’s headquarters would support a staff of about 893, according to HDR and Omni-Group, the consulting firms prepared the report. The 2008 budgeted staffing level for the sheriff’s headquarters was approximately 108 full-time employees, the report noted.

The facility could house as many as 2,450 inmates, according to the report, or about .7 percent of the total county population anticipated in 2050.

The current jail handles about .2 percent of county population. The proposed jail expansion anticipates the need for incarceration in Whatcom County may triple in a few decades.

“The historical growth in the Whatcom County offender population has been greater than the growth in the county population as a whole,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo admitted in a memo released in April. “We anticipate the offender population will continue to increase, exacerbating the crowding levels at the current facilities.” Elfo went on to explain that as areas assume a more urban character, the nature of crime changes.

“There are some very basic assumptions about the scale and design of this jail that should be questioned,” former Bellingham City Council member Barbara Ryan observed. Ryan was part of a citizens group that studied the proposal.

“This project imagines that the county population will grow about 1.5 percent per year until 2050. That’s not unreasonable, and would make the county population about 362,000 by 2050. But the jail population is projected to grow from about 500 to 2,450 in that same 40 years, a whopping 390 percent increase,” Ryan said.

“Why will we be locking up three times as many people, as a percentage of our population, as we do now? Are we getting that much badder?”

The politics of prison

Counterintuitive to difficult economic times and social unrest, incident rates for violent crimes have been falling for more than a decade, according to the U.S. Dept. of Justice Statistics, reaching historic lows in 2008. That year saw 40,000 fewer rapes, 380,000 fewer robberies, half a million fewer aggravated assaults and 1.6 million fewer burglaries than rates seen at peak levels two decades ago.

Last year, the U.S. prison population declined for the first time in a generation, as the population of the nation itself ages.

But the numbers on inmates still warehoused in the U.S. prison system are staggering. In 1970 one in 400 American adults was behind bars or on parole. As of 2008, the number was one in 100. Add in probation, and it’s one in 31. The number of people behind bars for drug crimes has soared from 40,000 in 1980 to about half a million today. The United States imprisons five percent of the world’s population and its states today spend one of every 15 general fund dollars on maintaining their prisons, according to justice statistics.

As crime reporter Rodney Balko documents, America’s soaring prison population has spawned fierce debate over issues such as the wisdom of mandatory minimum sentences, the financial burden that prisons impose on states struggling with budget shortfalls, and the degree to which incarceration explains the dramatic drop in crime during the last 20 years. But the United States has never had such a high percentage of its citizens behind bars, Balko notes, and we really have no idea what long-term effects the tough-on-crime policies of the last few decades will have. During the next decade, for example, we will start to see the release of nonviolent drug offenders hit with stiff prison sentences Congress devised in the 1980s.

New York Times reporter Adam Liptak pointed out in a 2008 article that America’s soaring incarceration rate may be largely due to the fact that we have one of the most politicized criminal justice systems in the developed world.

In Washington, as with most states, judges and prosecutors are elected, making them more accountable to an electorate driven by often irrational fear. While the crime rate has fallen dramatically since the early 1990s, polls consistently show that the public still thinks crime is getting worse.

Under the theory that more punishment is always better, lawmakers have imposed mandatory minimum sentences, made parole and probation more difficult, and decreed that possession of drugs above a certain quantity is automatically treated as distribution. As an illustration of the public’s concern, voters overwhelmingly approved an initiative last week that would deny bail to certain violent offenders, in effect removing the matter from judicial review. These and similar initiatives have led to some of the toughest crime policies in the world—and nearly twice as many prisoners as the state’s jail systems are designed to hold.


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