The Costs of Failure
Wednesday, June 6, 2018
THE COSTS OF FAILURE: An inmate being held on multiple pending felony charges committed suicide at the Whatcom County Jail. Sheriff Bill Elfo said the inmate apparently hanged himself by fashioning his shirt into a noose and jamming it into a cell door. Paramedics were unable to revive the man and the inmate died at the scene.
Whatcom County Council members were notified of the death at their somber morning committee meetings this week.
It is not the first death in recent memory at Whatcom County Jail; and, in its cramped and deteriorated condition, it is tragically unlikely to be the last fatality.
In May, the County Executive sketched the condition of the jail, and the challenges in its repair, to Council members as they prepare a capital facilities budget for next year. First, though, they intended to query the public in a forensic community survey on issues related to the jail and, more generally, criminal justice policy in Whatcom County.
An estimated $12 million is required for repairs at the Whatcom County Jail over the next six years. County Council members approved the first of the repair funds late last year, and recently authorized an additional $310,332 to Design2Last for a building assessment and cost estimates of capital jail and work center upgrades. The active contract with Design2Last is $1.2 million for repairs and upgrades to the most pressing concerns in the decayed facility, with the remainder pending.
The administration, however, firmly believes the money is poorly spent investing in the 35-year-old building that, at the end of upgrades, will still fail to meet the needs of a modern corrections facility. It is an expensive bandage on a gangrenous limb.
Voters twice rejected proposals for a new facility, and before Council moves forward on any particular plan they want to know more about what went wrong with prior funding initiatives. In its last appearance in front of voters, a two-tenths of a cent sales tax proposal to fund a new jail failed by a decisive 57 percent.
Through the spring, Council members ventured on what they called a “listening tour,” visiting communities around the county to learn more about public attitudes about the jail.
Their efforts at listening still did not produce direction for public policy, so Council proposes a more forensic study. The purpose of the survey?
“We’ve gone on our listening tours about the jail,” Council member Tyler Byrd explained. “Overarchingly right now, the listening tours have been about 20 to 25 people. Of that, there’s usually five or six elected officials or candidates in the room. Of the remaining number you get about 10 to 12 that are active on the [incarceration alternatives] task force or the No Jail campaign, and that leaves you with a very small number of community members from that location who are giving information to us. And while what we’ve learned helpful, it is also not relevant to the entire community.
“In my opinion,” Byrd said, “we have put forward two jail ballot initiatives. And they have both failed. And I think it is because we’re not listening to what the community wants and doesn’t want.”
“A survey like this,” he noted, “if it is an accurate sample size, will allow us to understand the issues people are most interested in, and what are the issues they’re less interested in, so we can build a plan that our community is willing to approve so we can move forward.”
Council’s investment in criminal justice cannot focus entirely on the jail, however, and particularly when there are tremendous economies of scale and cost savings to be found elsewhere—and with better outcomes than incarceration.
In 2016, Whatcom County contracted with the nonprofit Vera Institute of Justice to provide assistance in “developing a more thorough understanding of the local justice system and drivers of jail population growth in order to identify and prioritize recommendations for safely reducing unnecessary jail use.” The consultant is engaged with the improvement of justice systems that ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities.
The published Vera study found that “most jail admissions in Whatcom County involved non-felony charges and 68 percent of all admissions in 2016 involved holds from other jurisdictions or gross misdemeanor, misdemeanor or criminal traffic charges as the most serious charges.”
Those lesser offenses are being handled in a number of innovations by the City of Bellingham. The city was forced to get creative after a booking restriction was placed on the city following the first failed jail initiative.
Darlene Peterson, administrator for Bellingham Municipal Court, gave County Council an overview of some of those measures applied to misdemeanor offenses. Peterson delivered a similar presentation to Bellingham City Council last month.
Perhaps most promising of these alternatives is electronic home monitoring devices—bracelets that can track location or alcohol consumption for misdemeanants awaiting trial, exactly the group Vera reported might be most suitable to remove from the average daily jail population to reduce overcrowding.
Investing in electronic home monitoring, the city decided just to absorb the program’s costs as part of COB’s general operating budget. The results have been promising.
“The cost to the city for supplementing all of these defendants with electronic home monitoring was $89,285,” Peterson reported. “Now that seems like a lot of money, but the city’s cost had the defendants been in the Whatcom County Jail at the 2017 rate, that would have been $950,000.
“So the investment that the city is making in helping people who are indigent qualify for this program has helped us, because we’re saving a lot of money.
“There are options,” Peterson said, “There are other things that we can do.”
The program wouldn’t have helped the poor felon who took his own life in jail this week, but it might reduce an overcrowded facility and discourage a death like this in the future.