Wednesday, November 29, 2017
GULAG GOULASH: Central to Proposition 2017-6—the proposed .2 percent increase to the public safety sales tax for the construction of a new jail complex—was the admission by public officials and law enforcement professionals that, through a combination of prolonged neglect and reluctance to throw good money after bad, the current jail had deteriorated badly and was no longer a secure, safe facility for inmates and staff. Absent from their mixture was the assurance that every avenue had been thoroughly explored and exhausted before approaching the public with a proposal to replace the aging and overcrowded facility with one of the most costly jail complexes in North America. It was a recipe not much different from the one voters sent back to the kitchen in 2015.
The ingredients were sloppily mixed at the last minute in July—the very deadline to place a proposition on the fall ballot—and thrown into the pressure cooker of a November election. The election is over, but the pressure inside the cooker has not subsided. The admissions of nonfeasance, misfeasance and neglect that were central to the pro-jail campaign are shudderingly likely to boil over or explode.
The jail issue got beaten, and beaten badly—failing by more than 17 points and ten thousand votes. Proposition 2017-6 performed poorly everywhere outside of Lynden, and a net 32 precincts that had supported the similar measure in 2015 flipped and rejected the jail tax in 2017. Proposition 2017-6 received more votes than any other single item on the November ballot, and fewer than 4 percent of all county voters failed to register an opinion on it.
The seasonings missing that might’ve flavored this stew—the options that might extend the life of the aging, failing jail facility and reduce its overcrowding—arrived only just this week.
At the direction of Whatcom County Council, a meeting was called this week to begin discussion on necessary improvements to the Whatcom County Jail to carry the facility through its uncertain future. Project consultants design2 LAST completed a building assessment of the existing jail, noting issues of code compliance, structural deficiencies, operational improvements and identified challenges. Consultants provided preliminary costs of suggested improvements to existing structure.
“The jail, constructed in 1984, is showing its age,” consultants observed. “While the structure appears sound, it was built prior to current, more stringent, seismic codes and may be at risk for failure during a seismic event. The heating system is operational but requires almost daily maintenance. It lacks seismic bracing and redundancy. The plumbing piping similarly is operational but has had many recent failures in isolated locations. Recent repairs to pipe leaks show significant corrosion at joints and connections.” Preliminary cost estimates to address the most severe and immediate jail issues are estimated at $4 million for the initial phase, with perhaps half again that amount for associated and administrative costs.
Undoubtedly as their design work matures, consultants may discover additional economies to extend the life of the current jail—perhaps including moving the Sheriff’s administrative offices out of the building and using that additional capacity for corrections.
A more savory and nourishing set of late seasonings also arrived this week with the approval of the third and final report of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. Also created by County Council in 2016, the task force is intended to do just what it says on the tin: research and propose policies and mechanisms to improve criminal justice outcomes.
Foremost on the task force’s list of recommendations is the expedited completion of a crisis triage facility to provide mental health stabilization and acute substance detox services. Well over a third of those warehoused in jail suffer from some form of mental or behavioral health or substance abuse issues—conditions poorly served and often exacerbated by jail.
The task force assembled and reinforced the findings of Vera Institute consultants who found that “on any given day, almost 60 percent of the people detained in jail were held pretrial, awaiting resolution of their cases. Nearly all (82 percent) of those being held pretrial had financial bail amounts they had not yet posted, and a large percentage of them would not post bail prior to their cases being resolved. Financial bail lengthens the amount of time people stay in jail.”
At the end of the task force meeting, Sheriff Bill Elfo delivered a litany of alternatives to incarceration his office and others are beginning to explore. His list included outreach and restorative justice programs like GRACE pioneered in Everett; technological solutions like electronic home monitoring and a pretrial screening tool that can build confidence among judges and prosecutors in releases from jail; and agreements with other jurisdictions like Yakima that can assist with overcrowding issues as Whatcom focuses on remediating its jail. King County, he discovered, has an innovative method of quashing warrants on de minimis offenses like failure to appear in court on a traffic infraction.
“Our jail population,” Elfo reported, “has been at historical lows for the past couple of weeks.” And that’s going to help with near-term repairs and upkeep of the existing facility.
Funding, he said, was a challenge; but what is the cost of not pursuing these options?
Elfo’s report was encouraging, but raises the question: What has the county been waiting for? The promising methods explored by Bellingham, Everett, Seattle, Spokane, King County and other communities could have been investigated months ago, the methods might have been applied to reduce the current overcrowding at the jail. We’ve studied an overcrowded jail and its factors for nearly 20 years.
The answer circles back to the pressure cooker, that without constriction and heat there’s little compelling need to seek alternatives to incarceration. Conversely, actually solving the problems of the current jail undercut the political urgency to construct a new one. Prolonged human suffering was an ingredient in the county administration’s under-seasoned over-cooked stew.