Wednesday, September 25, 2019
TRUST GAP: Moving in the right direction albeit glacially, behavioral health and criminal justice reform is taking shape in Whatcom County.
Groundbreaking begins next week on the long anticipated Crisis Stabilization Facility, an expansion of the current 13-bed triage center for adults experiencing a mental health crisis or in need of withdrawal management services. The new project will expand the current facility and services to up to 32 beds—16 for voluntary crisis triage and 16 more for voluntary detox services. The $9.5 million expansion project is funded through a combination of support from the state’s capital budget and the North Sound Behavioral Health Organization, and the Whatcom County Behavioral Health Fund—the approved mental health care tax.
The expansion was initially proposed in 2014 and identified as a key priority by Whatcom County Council in 2015, and may be operational by this time next year—an illustration of how long it can take for even a widely supported concept to come to fruition.
Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey and Council member Barry Buchanan sketched the status and proposals of criminal justice reform at a special meeting this week. They were joined by Arlene Feld and Heather Flaherty, citizen members of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF), a large group with broad experience formed to review the county’s criminal justice and behavioral health programs and make specific recommendations to safely and effectively reduce incarceration of individuals struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency. Formed in 2015, the task force also now serves as the county’s Law and Justice Council.
Commenting on public involvement to date, Buchanan noted, “Over and over again, we heard that our community wants to see treatment first, an exhaustion of options for substance use and mental health, and increased transparency, better data, and robust community engagement. We also heard concerns about the condition of the jail and whether it was serving the community or not.”
The meeting served as assurance that county offices are listening and at work on these issues.
Richey scoped a variety of procedural and policy changes underway to help reduce incarceration rates and overcrowding at the jail, and to improve outcomes in the criminal justice system by focusing on root causes of criminal behavior.
Richey identified primary root causes—housing and income insecurity, exacerbated by inadequate mental and behavioral health treatment services.
Richey also sketched a number of policies championed by his office—many of them identified as early actions by the IPRTF—to reduce incarceration rates and create alternatives to jail. These include expansion of the county’s therapeutic courts, conversion of low-level drug offenses to misdemeanors, and the quashing of outstanding warrants. Many of the latter result from failure to appear for a court date, so the prosecutors office has taken steps to improve outreach and a more merciful approach to what’s pejoratively been termed “bail jumping.” Related, the county is exploring the concept of vacating convictions in some cases to help clear criminal records so that individuals can move on with their lives.
Richey also identified approaches at work in neighboring communities, such as GRACE and LEAD. GRACE is ground-level response and coordinated engagement that focuses on finding proactive solutions for individuals in crisis. LEAD is a diversion program currently underway in King County that brings in police and prosecutors constructively on the back-end, when community outreach and intervention solutions are ineffective and an individual is brought into the criminal justice system. LEAD attempts to find credible alternatives to booking people into jail for criminal activity that stems from unmet behavioral health needs or poverty.
“We are in the beginning phases of introducing LEAD,” Richey explained. “This is something that I spoke with the Sheriff about two years ago, and we are making progress” in consultation with other offices employing the program.
Richey also announced the creation of a new office of pretrial services to help reduce the number of people in custody awaiting trial.
In 2019, these policies and programs are mostly aspirational in Whatcom County. They’ve been discussed and studied, but not fully implemented. Nevertheless, Richey reported an 11.5 percent drop in incarceration rates at the Whatcom County Jail since he took office at the start of this year.
That’s an encouraging number; and an illustration of the remarkable change that can occur merely by looking at a problem through a fresh lens.
Richey identified gaps in the county’s ability to lower rates of incarceration and improve outcomes in the criminal justice system. The speed at which these concepts can be implemented is surely among them.
“People work at the speed of trust,” Flaherty observed of the importance of building strong relationships that move the county forward.
It was a witty quote, and one seized upon by members of the community who commented during the evening.
The county has a continuing trust gap with the public over the issue of the jail, and policy approaches to incarceration. Two public bond initiatives to finance a big new jail failed at the polls. Incarceration rates were white-hot as these measures were debated, then cooled miraculously after the measures failed. The county was inflexible on jail size and location, and intractable with local jurisdictions on the financing and operations of the facility. An aging jail characterized as ready to collapse has instead been found to be structurally sound although in need of repair. On and on.
Success builds trust, and the county is working at the speed of the trust they’ve built (and are building) with the public.