Listening and Learning

County seeks public advice on criminal justice

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

Voters spoke. But what did voters mean?

In 2017, county voters rejected—by a wide margin, and for a second time—a public safety sales tax to construct a new jail. Staggering from that defeat and burdened with unanswered questions, Whatcom County Council assembled a committee and task force to gather opinion and ideas for public safety and criminal justice improvements.

If not this, what?

Their approach has several facets. One of them is just simply to listen.

Throughout the spring—in libraries, resource centers and a dance barn—Council members Barry Buchanan, Tyler Byrd, and Satpal Sidhu sat quietly and listened to concerns and opinions from community members. And from there, they’ll follow up the listening with a deep dive into forensic data collected through a survey.

To assist, the county in April applied for a $50,000 grant from the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national initiative to reduce over-incarceration by changing the way America thinks about and uses jails, to assist with public outreach. The Challenge provides support to local leaders who are determined to tackle a fundamental driver of over-incarceration in America—the misuse and overuse of jails. The Challenge aim to reduce their local jail populations by 18 to 30 percent.

For Whatcom County, it is a conversation long overdue.

“Do you know how long we’ve been talking about a new jail and reducing incarceration in Whatcom County? Around 20 years. Know how long the county’s been listening to what the community has to say? About three months,” Genevieve Jones said of the effort. “It’s a long-overdue step, but a critically important one.”

Jones is a volunteer with the Whatcom Justice Network, an organization of citizens committed to informing and influencing justice planning and policy. The network works with county leaders and elected representatives, and supports the work of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Taskforce—a parallel effort led by county legal, law enforcement and mental health professionals to help improve criminal justice outcomes. Whatcom Justice Network played a key role in promoting the listening tour.

“The attendance for these sessions wasn’t great,” Jones confessed. “You’d think, given the fervor of the issue in the fall, that there would be lines out the door. But it’s hard to convince people to spend two hours of a Tuesday night talking about difficult community issues.”

Those who did show up cared deeply. The majority were concerned community members who follow justice issues closely. A few were spouses and children of law enforcement officers, religious ministers who worked in prisons and jails, and people with family members enmeshed in the criminal justice system. Others included counselors who work with incarcerated populations.

Colleen Harper from Ferndale shared the story of her sister, a mother of four whose schizophrenia led to her entanglement in King County’s criminal justice system.

“It was damaging to everyone involved. It was damaging to her family,” Harper related. “It was damaging to her children. She was back in and out of jail three times that year with no meaningful treatment. It basically ended in no-contact orders because of her violent threats, which are not considered violent enough to pursue on a criminal level, but because there are no options she will just cycle in and out of the criminal justice system until her life fizzes out,” Harper said.

Her story of perverse outcomes, of an absence of resolution and ultimate justice, was a common theme among stories Council members heard.

The county hired Crossroads Consulting to facilitate the meetings. Holly O’Neill, the main facilitator, set the community standards and expertly passed the mic to keep conversation going, ensure all voices were heard, and to encourage the quieter participants.

“Prior to these listening sessions very few meetings or hearings had been held on justice issues. It was past time for the public to be heard,” Jones said.

“So yes, listening is important. The county needs to rebuild trust with voters and the general public. That takes active and continued efforts to listen to what we have to say. In going to neighborhoods and literally passing the mic to community members, the county is truly inviting the public to the table,” she said.

Citizens had much to say about Whatcom County’s justice system and changes they want to see. When it came to the jail, few said they were opposed to jails outright.

A dominant theme heard across listening sessions was that people would be in favor of renovating the old jail or building a new jail—but only if the proposal invested in incarceration prevention, reduction, and treatment first.

Roger Shetke works with at-risk youth, some of whom have been incarcerated. In a listening session in Fairhaven he said, “I grew up around a lot of folks who have been incarcerated and who have used the services such as drug court to reduce the amount of time they had to spend within the system. It’s worked really well.”

While Shetke voted against the jail, he said that “I would vote for a tax if my money was going to mental health services because a lot of the people I come in contact with are in desperate need of those. There’s people using drugs and going back into inpatient just so they have a safe place to be.”

Community members often cited the findings of the Vera Report, another data source commissioned by County Council, a consultant’s report on factors that contribute to jail overcrowding.

The Vera Report indicates that incarceration rates in Whatcom County between 1970 and 2014 have more than tripled—from 87 to 276 per 100,000 residents. Equally troubling, in 2016 nearly 60 percent of the inmates in Whatcom County Jail were unconvicted and awaiting trial, unable for a panoply of reasons to secure their release from incarceration.

Both trends are mirrored in jails across the nation.

“Listening session participants continually pointed to the need to address the root causes of crime in our community, or we could quickly find ourselves back in the same position we are now,” Jones noted.

Listening session participants suggested alternatives to an endless cycle of crime and punishment.

In Maple Falls, Carl McDaniel pointed out that the very building they sat in, the East Whatcom Regional Resource Center, helped to prevent crime by providing youth with productive activities.

“There are a lot of things that can be done before we ever get to the jail, to keep people out of those jails—and it comes down to community,” McDaniel said. “Those costs are rather small compared to the cost of a jail, or incarcerating someone year after year after year.”

“Let’s be clear. Listening is not the end-all-be-all. It’s just the first step,” Jones said. “We need the county to translate our input into action. But for now, while they’re still listening, let’s make sure they hear us loud and clear.”

Aware they were hearing from only a sliver of the county population, committee members Buchanan, Byrd, and Sidhu championed that their sessions should be followed by a more extensive, statistically robust community survey.

“We’ve gone on our listening tours about the jail,” Council member Byrd reported at a recent committee meeting. “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 is helpful, it is also not relevant to the entire community.

“A survey like this,” Byrd 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.”

The survey was distributed at each of the listening sessions and is now being used to collect data from people who weren’t able to attend. The survey has two components or phases. The first is a random sampling; the second is collection of opinion from as broad a community as is feasible. For the second portion, volume of data is key.

“It only takes five minutes and it could help inform the future of our criminal justice system,” Jones noted.

“Then stay tuned as the County Council continues to reach out. Over the next few months they’ll be disseminating the survey, collecting data from a demographically representative sample of the county, and then having Crossroads Consulting compile the results of survey data and listening session themes into a report,” she said.

This report will be made public and will inform future Council policy decisions.

County Council has demonstrated clear intent to break from the past and include the public in future decisions about criminal justice in Whatcom.

“The listening tour is a step in the right direction,” Jones said. “Let’s hope they’ll continue to not only listen, but also put our words to good use.”

Take the community survey:
For more information on the listening tour and criminal justice alternatives:
Special thanks to Whatcom Justice Network for facilitating the listening tours and providing research for this article:

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