Some Assembly Required
Wednesday, July 12, 2017
SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: With tepid support from policymakers, a jail initiative limps toward the ballot for November. But does unenthusiastic official support for the most expensive proposed capital expenditure in the history of Whatcom County doom the measure at the polls?
Whatcom County Council got their informing documents—their data—all in a rushed jumble on the very day they had to consider placing a .2 percent countywide public safety sales tax for the construction of a large, remote jail and criminal justice center in time for the measure to be printed for the November ballots. The data, and indeed the chaos and emergent pressure under which they had to consider the information, all suggested they needed more time for a more considered proposal and plan moving forward. They did not have the time.
Documents included the draft report from Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force authorized by County Council after the failure of the first jail tax initiative in 2015. The report includes a number of recommendations that could substantially reduce populations in the county jail, including more proactive and coordinated early engagement of the social justice system to help reduce crime and better tools that might permit pretrial release of inmates who pose no threat or danger to the community. Documents also included the long-awaited consultant’s report by the Vera Institute, a national study group dedicated to improving justice systems to ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities. The Vera report delivered data analysis to help understand the current Whatcom County criminal justice system. The two reports reinforce one another’s conclusions, and suggest in dovetailing ways that a warehouse for criminals is a misplaced investment for more than $110 million in public safety sales tax revenues.
In particular, the Vera report identified that controlled substance abuse—including DUI—accounted for the lion’s share of felony and criminal traffic admissions to Whatcom County jail. For gross misdemeanors, the most common admissions were for domestic assaults and petty thefts. Among simple misdemeanors, parole violations. In aggregate, these accounted for nearly 70 percent of jail admissions in the 2016 data set studied by Vera. All suggest poverty and lack of early social support are key considerations to dramatically reducing jail populations in Whatcom County; and few qualify as the sorts of dangerous inmates who require maximum security incarceration.
Even more notably of concern, Vera identified 59 percent of inmates were being held in jail pretrial, “which means they are legally innocent and awaiting resolution of their cases, compared to 24 percent of the jail population that is sentenced,” Vera analysts noted in their report. Contributing immensely to this condition is the inability of many of these inmates to make bail, again another feature of poverty. A third of inmates were being held on less than $1,000 bond. Again, they could be out on bond for minor offenses; they can’t afford to be out on bond.
“Through interagency collaboration and coordination, Whatcom County must address the systemic drivers of jail population growth,” Vera analysts urged in their report. “This is the only effective means of controlling jail growth. Any attempt to ease overcrowding by building a new facility or expanding the current one will not address the underlying causes of population growth, and the new facility will quickly become overcrowded. Criminal justice and community stakeholders must work together to achieve a safe, sustainable, and fair justice system.”
County Council’s divided decision to place the matter before voters is perhaps most heavily influenced by a related split decision that occurred the previous day across the street: The divided vote by Bellingham City Council to join the interlocal Jail Facility Financing and Use Agreement (JFFUA), thereby delivering a support the 2015 sales tax measure did not have—tacit endorsement by all of the county’s cities of the jail plan.
City Council’s vote was perhaps inevitable, given they’d negotiated for—and received—a much better deal as a municipality on the financing and future operations of the jail. Essentially, they’d gotten all they’d asked for that could be delivered within the scope of a JFFUA. And it is unlikely a future county administration and council would be more generous in some future agreement—likely a great deal less generous.
Yet despite some sweetening of the deal for Whatcom’s cities, the plan for a big, expensive, remote new jail is not much different than the the proposal voters rejected in 2015. It is in its major outlines and assumptions the same plan.
City Council had predicated their approval on the JFFUA on the answers to a number of questions they posed to County Council regarding the size and location of the jail, and the county’s dedicated financial commitment to jail alternatives. County Council could not definitively answer most of the city’s questions. But council members from both jurisdictions met to hammer out an answer to the most pressing question, one of financial commitment to social justice alternatives to incarceration.
In principle, the two jurisdictions agreed to invest 25 percent of net public safety sales tax revenue annually, in excess of the obligation for the capital cost of the new jail, to fund these new or expanded incarceration prevention and reduction programs.
The agreement was hammered out by two holdouts on the JFFUA on City Council—Terry Bornemann and Michael Lilliquist—in consultation with three counterparts on County Council. And having negotiated for this and gotten it, Bornemann and Lilliquist could not then reject the agreement, and thus joined their council majority 5 to 2.
“The voters will decide” is the narrative moving forward as electeds wash their hands of the insoluble mess. Indeed voters will, as they did before. And that may well be the full and complete narrative of the election.