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.