Wednesday, June 21, 2017
STANDOFF: On the immediate questions concerning the construction and operation of a big, flat, remote new jail, Whatcom County and Bellingham City policymakers appear paralyzed by one another’s indecision.
Whatcom County Council last week listened to a wide array of comments—most of them critical, many of them scorching—on a proposal to place a .2 percent sales tax measure on the November ballot to construct a county corrections facility and new Sheriff’s offices on LaBounty Road near Ferndale. They took no action; and it is not certain there are the four votes required to place a public safety sales tax on the fall ballot without a clear answer to one of their most crucial questions moving forward—whether the City of Bellingham will agree to participate in the financing instrument and operating costs of a new jail.
Meanwhile, across the street, Bellingham City Council this week likewise continued to take no action on an interlocal jail facility financing and use agreement (JFFUA); and it is not certain there are the four votes required to approve the JFFUA absent more clear commitment from county policymakers on programmatic responses to behavioral health and alternatives to incarceration that feed directly into considerations of the design of a new jail (including its size and location). Approval of the JFFUA essentially serves as the city’s endorsement of the ballot measure; and a plurality of City Council members prefer not to endorse the measure without greater detail and assurance from their County Council counterparts.
Summing up his concerns, Bellingham City Council President Michael Lilliquist observed, “I would like to see clear and unambiguous financial commitments by all parties to funding and implementing efforts to reduce incarceration and recidivism.” That effort, he noted, should be at least as important as—and concomitant with—jail planning, since success in reducing rates of incarceration factor directly into the size and scope of jail operations.
Others on Council expressed similar misgivings.
“We have not solidified an immediate plan for greater mental health and substance abuse issues, and those are unfortunately right now bound up in the criminal justice system,” April Barker said. “We’ve linked them. Why is that a jail issue? We’ve made it an issue about the jail—because things are out of order, because we haven’t slowed down to really make a clear plan.”
This pickle was brined when Bellingham (and Whatcom’s smaller cities) got nearly everything they’d negotiated for in improvements to the shared costs of jail construction and operation; and the agreement is much improved from the version City Council could not endorse and that failed at the polls in 2015. Having their original demands addressed, City Council cannot then easily renegotiate their other concerns about the county’s creaky, deficient “lock ’em up” approaches to behavioral health and criminal justice in the modern era.
Part of the standoff is simply related to the tremendous success the City of Bellingham witnessed in reducing incarceration rates after the Whatcom County Sheriff imposed a booking restriction on the jail in 2016. The Sheriff’s restriction of jail capacity was widely understood to be punitive, designed to wallop COB in particular for the city’s failure to support that earlier sales tax initiative to fund a new jail, but the restriction had the effect of forcing the city to get creative in a hurry to find alternatives to jail. And they did—reducing the number of criminal misdemeanor bookings of arrests by city police into county jail by as much as 90 percent.
Whatcom County, meanwhile, has been slow to implement any of COB’s discoveries and therefore has little data of its own on how pretrial release and coordinated engagement programs like GRACE might substantially reduce the requirements for a new jail.
County Council authorized a special task force to investigate a range of possibilities to reduce and prevent incarceration, including those discovered useful by Bellingham, but the final report of the task force will not be available until July, with insufficient time to meaningfully influence County Council discussion on the jail. The work by the task force has not been incorporated in any formal way into the discussion of jail planning and financing.
Likewise, a consultant’s report from the Vera Institute that could meaningfully guide county policy on the causes and consequences of mass incarceration will also not be available until mid-July.
Obviously, both reports could influence public discussion on the design and scale of a responsive behavioral health and criminal justice system, but neither will arrive in time to inform the decision of County Council to place a new jail tax on the ballot for November.
Without these reports, it seems unlikely County Council can make the “clear and unambiguous” programmatic and policy commitments Lilliquist and others on Bellingham City Council say are essential for their support of a JFFUA and endorsement of the ballot measure.
The text of an approved ballot measure will assuredly lock in place all of the ill-informed uncertainty of the size and scale of a new jail facility. The County Executive made this clear in 2015 when he scolded Council members that they could not place a sales tax measure on a ballot for voters and believe they could then renegotiate the terms of that measure after it passed at the polls. He was correct that the county needs to deliver on the descriptions of the initiatives voters approve.
But the questions posed by City Council that are key to their support and endorsement cannot be answered by County Council. County Council, too, has been firewalled from jail planning discussions about the size and location of a facility, with almost no opportunity to weigh in on those topics. Some formulae about the number of beds per population are imposed upon them by manpower considerations, state mandates and sentencing requirements of the criminal justice system; but for the remainder, the data available to them (and to voters) is just lacking for good decision making.
Upside down, the jail plan could get dumped on its head.