The Gristle

Statistics of Shame

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

STATISTICS OF SHAME: The “four gray walls” approach of the county to criminal justice was on vivid display last week, as the Vera Institute presented their final report and data analysis on mechanisms that could help reduce incarceration rates and jail populations while improving social justice outcomes. County administrators appeared more interested in defending their current practices to the analysts than listening to the analysts in an open exploration of new approaches to criminal justice.

“Whatcom County has experienced dramatic growth in its local jail population over the past five decades”—a nine-fold increase, consultants commented on those practices. “During the same period—the incarceration rate in jail per 100,000 county residents—more than tripled.”

The Vera Institute studies the causes and consequences of mass incarceration, racial disparities, and the loss of public trust in law enforcement, to the unmet needs of the vulnerable, the marginalized, and those harmed by crime and violence. The consultant was hired by Whatcom County Council to study the criminal justice system and provide recommendations that might reduce incarceration rates and improve justice outcomes in Whatcom County.

Alas, and unbelievably, conversations about reducing incarceration rates and improving outcomes took place in isolation from conversations about the size and location of a new jail. The conversations happened in parallel over the course of more than a year, but they did not intersect and meaningfully inform one another.

Perhaps the most shameful of statistics unearthed in the Vera study, nearly 60 percent of the average daily population are being held without trial. No judge, no jury has heard their circumstances or has seen evidence of their crimes. Nothing has been demonstrated against them. That population, for a variety of reasons, simply cannot make bail. Twenty percent of people with bail of $1,000 or less were not able to post bail prior to the disposition of their cases.

Hold that idea in your mind, and realize this is not a statistic a larger, newer jail will improve.

“Whatcom County, like many jurisdictions, has relied on financial bail to ensure that defendants appear for court and do not commit crimes while in the community awaiting case resolution,” Vera consultants explained. “This means that defendants’ ability to pay bail often determines whether they remain in jail or not, rather than their risk for failure to appear (FTA) or to public safety. Jurisdictions around the country are moving away from this approach.”

Another statistic of shame from the Vera report: Fully a third of inmates at the Whatcom County Jail suffer from some mental health or behavioral health or substance abuse disorder that is very poorly served, and likely worsened by incarceration.

Again, this is not a problem a new, larger jail will address; and the notion that that a new facility will offer a larger footprint for behavioral health programs is as laughable as it is cruel: No person is going to voluntarily journey to some remote maximum-security outpost on the edge of Ferndale to seek professional mental health counseling.

Notably, the Sheriff and County Executive were not in attendance for the final Vera report, and although their deputies were present it might have been useful to hear this information firsthand. The County Prosecutor contributed to the discussion, but left early. Bellingham’s mayor attended throughout, and the city drew praise from Vera analysts for sharply reducing incarceration rates for misdemeanor offenses. The city reported a 98 percent success rate in their nascent electronic home monitoring program that has reduced the need to warehouse these offenses in a maximum security jail. It’s a success story Vera consultants will take with them to share with other communities.

The majority of bookings at county jail for misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors are for petty theft and low-level assaults, or arrest warrants resulting from failure to appear in court for these minor charges.

The challenge is admittedly not an easy one at the county level. The standards for the justice system are much higher for felonies and gross misdemeanors charged from multiple jurisdictions, the cases are more complex and the options of judges much more constrained. Reform will require state and federal governments acting as partners, rolling back decades of policy that has produced perverse outcomes. But local governments like counties must lobby for the effort, must become champions of a new paradigm that improves lives and justice outcomes.

Jails across the country face these problems; and undoubtedly state and federal prison reforms actually worsen incarceration rates at the local level as problems are shifted downstream. Correctional holds from other jurisdictions have risen in the Homeland Security paradigm, as state and federal law enforcement and immigration officials use county lockup as holding cells. Advocacy is needed to push back against that paradigm.

And that’s why the county’s general response—glowering with arms crossed, muttering, “We can’t do that. We can’t afford that”—was so tone-deaf and counterproductive to what’s proposed: The possible reduction of about 75 percent of admissions to the jail and tandem reductions in average daily population in the jail.

Crisis creates opportunity. The opportunity the county spies is the remainder of a public safety sales tax they did not fully glom onto in 2004. Voters approved a .1 percent sales tax in 2004 to improve upon the existing jail or build a new one. That did not happen, and the crisis of an overcrowded and deteriorating jail has magnified since then. But if voters approve a new tax in 2017, they lock in place all of the poor reasoning, the perverse outcomes, and the bad faith that has gone into jail planning to date. If voters approve the jail tax, then the plan as it stands today is locked in place and the funds to address criminal justice are seized and exhausted—forever.

Crisis creates opportunity. And the opportunity that will arise from the failure of the jail tax initiative is a new and better, more humble and circumspect plan moving forward.

Smoking Crow
Past Columns
A Last Ditch Effort

April 18, 2018

Much ADUs About Nothing

April 11, 2018

The Sin of Sinclair

April 4, 2018

All Thumbs on the Scale

March 28, 2018

The Boundaries Between Us

March 21, 2018

Dirty Deeds

March 7, 2018

Sunshine Storm

February 28, 2018

A Public Education

February 21, 2018

Power Play

February 14, 2018

Neutral Ground

February 7, 2018

The Nature of the Emergency

January 31, 2018

‘Fix’ fumbled, punted

January 24, 2018

New Energy

January 17, 2018

Save Our Salish Sea

January 10, 2018

Predictions of Protractions

January 3, 2018

Parsing the Puzzle

December 27, 2017

Camp Kelli

December 20, 2017

Gifts of the Three Magi

December 13, 2017

Utility

December 6, 2017

Events
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Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Free Appliance Pick-up

10:00am|Whatcom County

Open House Garden Party

12:00pm|Bakerview Road

Hir

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Community Action Poverty Simulations

6:00pm|Cornwall Church

Opera Studio Performances

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Wild Things

9:30am| Stimpson Family Nature Reserve

Lynden Book Sale

10:00am|Lynden Library

Bellingham Beer Week

10:00am|Throughout Bellingham

Chanticleer Authors Conference

12:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Books and Bites

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Kimono Reception

1:00pm|Pacific Northwest Quilt & Fiber Arts Museum

Coffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Race to Alaska

6:30pm|Firehouse PAC

Always...Patsy Cline

7:00pm|Conway Muse

Skagit Jazz Night

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Adrian Legg

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

North Cascades Concert Band

7:30pm|Bellingham, Arlington, Anacortes

Legends and Brawls

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

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Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Free Appliance Pick-up

10:00am|Whatcom County

Hir

7:30pm|DUG Theater

9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Opera Studio Performances

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Lynden Book Sale

10:00am|Lynden Library

Bellingham Beer Week

10:00am|Throughout Bellingham

Chanticleer Authors Conference

12:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

Always...Patsy Cline

7:00pm|Conway Muse

North Cascades Concert Band

7:30pm|Bellingham, Arlington, Anacortes

Legends and Brawls

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Plant Society Field Trip

8:30am|Veder Mountain

3 Cs Plant Sale

9:00am|3 Cs Farms

Earth Day Planting

9:00am|NSEA Nursery

Ferndale City Wide Cleanup

9:00am|Downtown Ferndale

Planting Day

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

Fun with the Fuzz

9:00am|Bellingham Police Department

FutureFest

9:30am|Port Transit Shed Event Center

Bellingham Bay Bocce Tournament

9:30am|Bellingham Sportsplex

Earth Day Celebration

10:00am|Edgewater Park

Voting, the Heart of Democracy

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Ponds and Water Features

10:00am|Blaine Library

Community Art Museum Day

10:00am|Whatcom Museum

Arch of Healing Installation Ceremony

10:30am| Bellingham City Hall

Veggie Gardening 101

2:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Healthy Kids Day

2:00pm|Bellingham YMCA

Poetry Circle

3:00pm|Deming Library

Roller Betties Bout

5:00pm|Whatcom Community College

Winterhouse

6:00pm|Village Books

Speakeasy 21

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Rainbow Alliance Drag Show

7:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

Who will wear the crown?

7:00pm

Blackthorn Band

7:00pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Nepal Trek Talk

7:30pm|Lummi Island Library

Songs from the Universe

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Brigid Collins Benefit Concert

8:00pm|Walton Theatre

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Sunday
Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

10:00am|Skagit Valley

Free Appliance Pick-up

10:00am|Whatcom County

9 to 5, the Musical

7:30pm|Anacortes Community Theatre

Opera Studio Performances

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

Bellingham Beer Week

10:00am|Throughout Bellingham

Lynden Book Sale

10:00am|Lynden Library

Chanticleer Authors Conference

12:00pm|Hotel Bellwether

North Cascades Concert Band

7:30pm|Bellingham, Arlington, Anacortes

3 Cs Plant Sale

9:00am|3 Cs Farms

FutureFest

9:30am|Port Transit Shed Event Center

Dirty Dan Harris Festival

10:00am|Fairhaven Village Green

Earth Day Work Party

11:00am|Viva Farms

Pottery Demos

12:00pm|Good Earth Pottery

Choo Choo Soul

1:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Utopia Earth Day

1:00pm|Utopian Conservation Area

Audubon at the Museum

1:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

Chuckanut Chili Cook-off

1:30pm|Fairhaven Village Green

Rambling Unicorn

3:00pm|Everson Library

Seeing Pink

4:00pm|Ciao Thyme Commons

Crowder

7:00pm|Performing Arts Center Mainstage

Pink Martini

7:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Take Me to Church

8:00pm|Rumors Cabaret

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