The Gristle

Some Assembly Required

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED: With tepid support from policymakers, a jail initiative limps toward the ballot for November. But does unenthusiastic official support for the most expensive proposed capital expenditure in the history of Whatcom County doom the measure at the polls?

Whatcom County Council got their informing documents—their data—all in a rushed jumble on the very day they had to consider placing a .2 percent countywide public safety sales tax for the construction of a large, remote jail and criminal justice center in time for the measure to be printed for the November ballots. The data, and indeed the chaos and emergent pressure under which they had to consider the information, all suggested they needed more time for a more considered proposal and plan moving forward. They did not have the time.

Documents included the draft report from Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force authorized by County Council after the failure of the first jail tax initiative in 2015. The report includes a number of recommendations that could substantially reduce populations in the county jail, including more proactive and coordinated early engagement of the social justice system to help reduce crime and better tools that might permit pretrial release of inmates who pose no threat or danger to the community. Documents also included the long-awaited consultant’s report by the Vera Institute, a national study group dedicated to improving justice systems to ensure fairness, promote safety and strengthen communities. The Vera report delivered data analysis to help understand the current Whatcom County criminal justice system. The two reports reinforce one another’s conclusions, and suggest in dovetailing ways that a warehouse for criminals is a misplaced investment for more than $110 million in public safety sales tax revenues.

In particular, the Vera report identified that controlled substance abuse—including DUI—accounted for the lion’s share of felony and criminal traffic admissions to Whatcom County jail. For gross misdemeanors, the most common admissions were for domestic assaults and petty thefts. Among simple misdemeanors, parole violations. In aggregate, these accounted for nearly 70 percent of jail admissions in the 2016 data set studied by Vera. All suggest poverty and lack of early social support are key considerations to dramatically reducing jail populations in Whatcom County; and few qualify as the sorts of dangerous inmates who require maximum security incarceration.

Even more notably of concern, Vera identified 59 percent of inmates were being held in jail pretrial, “which means they are legally innocent and awaiting resolution of their cases, compared to 24 percent of the jail population that is sentenced,” Vera analysts noted in their report. Contributing immensely to this condition is the inability of many of these inmates to make bail, again another feature of poverty. A third of inmates were being held on less than $1,000 bond. Again, they could be out on bond for minor offenses; they can’t afford to be out on bond.

“Through interagency collaboration and coordination, Whatcom County must address the systemic drivers of jail population growth,” Vera analysts urged in their report. “This is the only effective means of controlling jail growth. Any attempt to ease overcrowding by building a new facility or expanding the current one will not address the underlying causes of population growth, and the new facility will quickly become overcrowded. Criminal justice and community stakeholders must work together to achieve a safe, sustainable, and fair justice system.”

County Council’s divided decision to place the matter before voters is perhaps most heavily influenced by a related split decision that occurred the previous day across the street: The divided vote by Bellingham City Council to join the interlocal Jail Facility Financing and Use Agreement (JFFUA), thereby delivering a support the 2015 sales tax measure did not have—tacit endorsement by all of the county’s cities of the jail plan.

City Council’s vote was perhaps inevitable, given they’d negotiated for—and received—a much better deal as a municipality on the financing and future operations of the jail. Essentially, they’d gotten all they’d asked for that could be delivered within the scope of a JFFUA. And it is unlikely a future county administration and council would be more generous in some future agreement—likely a great deal less generous.

Yet despite some sweetening of the deal for Whatcom’s cities, the plan for a big, expensive, remote new jail is not much different than the the proposal voters rejected in 2015. It is in its major outlines and assumptions the same plan.

City Council had predicated their approval on the JFFUA on the answers to a number of questions they posed to County Council regarding the size and location of the jail, and the county’s dedicated financial commitment to jail alternatives. County Council could not definitively answer most of the city’s questions. But council members from both jurisdictions met to hammer out an answer to the most pressing question, one of financial commitment to social justice alternatives to incarceration.

In principle, the two jurisdictions agreed to invest 25 percent of net public safety sales tax revenue annually, in excess of the obligation for the capital cost of the new jail, to fund these new or expanded incarceration prevention and reduction programs.

The agreement was hammered out by two holdouts on the JFFUA on City Council—Terry Bornemann and Michael Lilliquist—in consultation with three counterparts on County Council. And having negotiated for this and gotten it, Bornemann and Lilliquist could not then reject the agreement, and thus joined their council majority 5 to 2.

“The voters will decide” is the narrative moving forward as electeds wash their hands of the insoluble mess. Indeed voters will, as they did before. And that may well be the full and complete narrative of the election.

Smoking Crow
Past Columns
New Energy

January 17, 2018

Save Our Salish Sea

January 10, 2018

Predictions of Protractions

January 3, 2018

Parsing the Puzzle

December 27, 2017

Camp Kelli

December 20, 2017

Gifts of the Three Magi

December 13, 2017

Utility

December 6, 2017

Gulag Goulash

November 29, 2017

Bronze Rule

November 22, 2017

Napkin Plan

November 15, 2017

Less Wave Than Slosh

November 8, 2017

Statistics of Shame

November 1, 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

Events
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1:00pm|Ferndale Library

English Country Dancing

1:30pm|Bellingham Senior Activity Center

Poetry Writing Group

5:30pm|Village Books

Jazz Jam

5:30pm|Illuminati Brewing

Balkan Folk Dancers

7:00pm|Fairhaven Library

European Travelogue

7:00pm|Whatcom Museum's Old City Hall

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Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Wild Things

9:30am|Lake Padden Park

Garage Sale and Health Fair

12:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Books and Bites

2:00pm|Blaine Library

Post-Holiday Detox

2:00pm|Cordata Community Food Co-op

Coffee Tasting

3:00pm|Camber Cafe

Food Not Bombs

4:00pm|Downtown Bellingham

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Art Auction Gala

5:30pm|Whatcom Museum's Lightcatcher Building

Anacortes Women's March

6:00pm|Depot Arts Center

Family Story Night

6:00pm|Fairhaven Library

Sierra Club Winter Member Party

6:30pm|Boundary Bay Brewery

Xanadu

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

Opera Scenes

7:30pm|Performing Arts Center

The Flick

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Tropical Heat Wave Dance

8:00pm|Majestic

Space Trek, Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Five for Fighting

8:00pm|Mount Baker Theatre

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Saturday
Cascade Games Convention

9:00am|Bellingham Cruise Terminal

Garage Sale and Health Fair

12:00pm|Settlemyer Hall

Bellingham Folk Festival

4:30pm|Bellingham Unitarian Fellowship

Xanadu

7:00pm|Bellingham Arts Academy for Youth

The Flick

7:30pm|Sylvia Center for the Arts

Space Trek, Backyard Brawl

8:00pm|Upfront Theatre

Pancake Breakfast

8:00am|Ferndale Senior Center

VFW Breakfast

8:00am|VFW Hall

Smoking Crow Opening

9:00am|Smoking Crow

Mason Bee Management

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Nordic Ski Ambassadors

10:00am|SnoPark at Salmon Ridge

Plant Society Field Trip

10:00am|Birch Bay State Park

Skagit Eagle Festival

10:00am|Howard Miller Steelhead Park

March on Bellingham

10:00am|Bellingham City Hall

Winter Farmers Market

10:00am|Depot Market Square

Of marching and mending

12:00pm

Travel to Cuzco and Machu PIcchu

1:00pm|Blaine Library

Mysticism in Art

2:00pm|Skagit County Historical Museum

Mona Openings

2:00pm|Museum of Northwest Art

Cedar Weaving Workshop

2:00pm|Lynden Library

Teddy Bear Biographies

2:00pm|Ferndale Library

Exploring Port

2:00pm|Seifert & Jones Wine Merchants

Learn to Grow a Vegetable Garden

2:00pm|Sumas Library

The Fight Against Human Trafficking

3:00pm|Everson Library

Kindgom Quest

4:00pm|Village Books

Music and Memories

5:00pm|Swinomish Casino & Lodge

Robert Burns Supper

5:30pm|Littlefield Celtic Center

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea

7:30pm|McIntyre Hall

Ensemble Electra

7:30pm|Jansen Art Center

The Good Lovelies

7:30pm|Lincoln Theatre

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