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.

BTown
Past Columns
Napkin Plan

November 15, 2017

Less Wave Than Slosh

November 8, 2017

Cashing Out, Cashing In

October 25, 2017

A Creeping Paralysis

October 18, 2017

Fire and Water

October 11, 2017

Blockadia

September 27, 2017

Ounce of Prevention

September 20, 2017

Dwelling On It

September 13, 2017

Keeping the Dream Alive

September 6, 2017

A Bridge Too Far?

August 23, 2017

The Missing Middle

August 16, 2017

The Last, Best Solution

August 9, 2017

Fire and Water III

August 2, 2017

Fire and Water II

July 26, 2017

Fire and Water

July 19, 2017

Some Assembly Required

July 12, 2017

Good, Bad, Ugly

July 5, 2017

Zero Hour

June 28, 2017

Standoff

June 21, 2017

An Existential Triangle

June 14, 2017

Events
Today
Home for the Holidays

5:00pm|Ferndale Events Center

The 39 Steps

7:00pm|Sehome High School Little Theatre

Little Women

7:00pm|Ferndale High School

Peter and the Star Catcher

7:00pm|Squalicum High School

Romeo, You Idiot!

7:30pm|Heiner Theater

Fools

7:30pm|Mount Baker High School

Craft Bazaar

9:00am|American Legion Post #43

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Meridian Street

Hot Cider & Cool Art

10:00am|Morgan Block Studios

Used Book Sale

10:00am|Everson Library

Red Barn Handpicked Holiday Market

12:00pm|Northwest Washington Fairgrounds

Holiday Gifts from the Kitchen

3:00pm|Lynden Library, Ferndale Library

It's Where the Sidewalk Ends

6:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

New Music, New Dance

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center Concert Hall

The Big Short One-Act Festival

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Bellingham Repertory Dance's Emerge

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

Pancake Feed

8:00am|VFW Post 1585

Holiday Bazaar

9:00am|Hillcrest Chapel

Christmas in the Woods

9:00am|Garden Spot Nursery

NSEA Work Party

9:00am|Acme Elementary School

Turkey Trot

9:00am|Squalicum Creek Park

Climate Reality

10:00am|Bellingham Public Library

South Fork Winterfest

10:00am|Van Zandt Community Hall

Fall Gardening

10:00am|Lynden Library

Cheese Fest

10:00am|Everybody's Store

Bellingham Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Rexville Grange Holiday Art Show

10:00am|Rexville Grange

Holiday Farmers Market

10:00am|Port of Anacortes Transit Shed Event Center

Lynden Book Club

10:30am|Everson Library

Salmon Sighting

12:00pm|Haynie Creek

Conquering Writer's Block

2:00pm|South Whatcom Library

Fishboy Holiday Show

2:00pm|FishBoy Gallery

NaNoWriMo and Indie Publishing

3:00pm|Everson Library

Skagit Wine & Beer Festival

3:00pm|Eaglemont

Homeless Summit and Cold Weather Giveaway

3:00pm|Maritime Heritage Park

i.e. artists talk

3:30pm|i.e. gallery

Small Works Opening

4:00pm|Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park

Smith & Vallee Artist Talk

4:00pm| Smith & Vallee Gallery

WA 129 Poetry Reading

6:00pm|Maple Hall

Giving from the Heart

7:00pm|Depot Art Center

A Light in the Darkness

7:00pm|Church of the Assumption

Welcome Home Celebration

7:00pm|Village Books

Ruach Consort

7:00pm|St. Paul's Episcopal Church

Contra Dance

7:00pm|Eagles Hall

Michael Kaeshammer

7:30pm|Mount Baker Theatre

Legends of the Blues V

7:30pm|Byrnes Performing Arts Center

Trove
Tomorrow
Peter and the Star Catcher

7:00pm|Squalicum High School

Fools

7:30pm|Mount Baker High School

Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Meridian Street

Bellingham Repertory Dance's Emerge

7:30pm|Firehouse Performing Arts Center

Rexville Grange Holiday Art Show

10:00am|Rexville Grange

Cheese Fest

10:00am|Everybody's Store

Holiday Farmers Market

10:00am|Port of Anacortes Transit Shed Event Center

Rabbit Ride

8:00am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Community Breakfast

8:00am|American Legion Post #43

Rabbit Ride

8:30am|Fairhaven Bicycle

Getting in on the act

1:00pm

Sound of Music Singalong

1:00pm|Lincoln Theatre

A Musical Thanksgiving

2:00pm|McIntyre Hall

Harmony from Discord with Whatcom Symphony Orchestra

3:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

The 25th Hour

4:00pm|Village Books

Southside Community Meal

5:00pm|Our Saviour's Lutheran Church

Way North Comedy Showcase

7:00pm|Farmstrong Brewing Co.

Rutie Dornfeld, John Miller

7:00pm|YWCA Ballroom

Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books
Monday
Holiday Festival of the Arts

10:00am|Meridian Street

Wander + Camber Beer Dinner

6:30pm|Camber Cafe

Rocks & Gems

7:00pm|Bloedel Donovan Community Building

Guffawingham

9:30pm|Green Frog

see our complete calendar »

Bellingham Farmer’s Market Cascadia Weekly Subscribe Ad 1 Village Books Kaeshammer Trove