Thinking Outside the Box

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX: The status of law enforcement, public safety and criminal justice reform was outlined in the annual report of Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo to County Council this week. The news is mostly encouraging; and—following two failed ballot initiatives to build a big bloated, remote jail—officials are finally listening to the public in a more responsive framework designed to reduce incarceration rates and produce better social justice outcomes.

“I cannot overemphasize the impact mental health and substance abuse issues have in our community and the criminal justice system,” Elfo noted in his opening remarks. “In 2016, we began to better track 911 calls that involve mental health issues. From that year to 2018 alone, we experienced a 33 percent increase in calls attributable to mental health issues.”

The criminal justice system is a poorly matched and expensive tool to apply to the human health crises of mental health and substance abuse.

“New emphasis is placed on the value and techniques, where safe and appropriate, of diverting people from the criminal justice system and jail to mental health or substance abuse treatment,” Elfo reported. “A highly trained deputy works with the most complex and repetitive cases, as well as those who appear to be escalating and pose an imminent threat to the community. Social workers often accompany our crisis intervention deputy on calls, and provide an opportunity to find solutions outside the criminal justice system.”

A new electronic home monitoring system has dramatically reduced the number of bed hours required the overcrowded and deteriorating jail.

“In just the first four months of 2019, the Sheriff’s Office facilitated electronic home monitoring for what would be the equivalent of 10,889 jail bed days,” Elfo said, noting that the courts appear to be taking advantage of a better means of monitoring pre-trial inmates. Inmates awaiting trial have been estimated to take up as much as 60 percent of the capacity of the current jail.

“Total District Court bed days are down from the from quarter of 2019 from 2018 by 24 percent, and bed days from Superior Court for same period down by just under 15 percent,” Elfo reported.

Bed days for the county’s work release program has been nearly cut in half (58 percent) in a very short period of time thanks to electronic devices that obviate the need for jail.

Due to a variety of innovations, “the average length of stay for persons housed within the jail dropped from 15 days in 2014 to 12 days in 2018,” Elfo reported. “From January through May of 2019, the average length of stay has been eight days.”

Many of these innovations arrived through the research and recommendations of the Incarceration and Reduction Task Force, created by County Council after the failure of public bond initiatives to fund a new jail.

In January, Council refined the duties and ongoing work of the IRTF, and approved code revisions that would allow the broad and interdisciplinary task force to also serve as the Whatcom County Law and Justice Council. The latter organization is required under Washington law but has been inactive for a number of years, paralyzed by divergent paradigms concerning mass incarceration—old versus new. In naming the IRTF as the Law and Justice Council, policymakers broke through the impasse and established the governing paradigm for the future: Humane and effective alternatives to mass incarceration.

Earlier this month, County Council acted unanimously on the recommendations of the IRTF Law and Justice Council, approving a resolution designed to reduce the incarceration of young adults. The resolution recognizes the need to steer this vulnerable class away from future involvement with the criminal justice system, focusing instead on improving access to education, healthy environments, economic opportunities and housing security.

Despite these advances, the need for an improved solution for a jail continues, with the county pouring scads of money into an aging and inadequate facility—a projected cost of $10 million over five years to address the most significant major threats to safety and security, and $32 million over 20 years to address the remainder.

“Multiple deficiencies with the down jail involve not only life-safety and security issues, but they also impede our ability to provide quality mental health, substance abuse and medical treatment, as well as our ability to provide educational and other programs to assist people who are housed in the jail,” Elfo reported.

“It breaks my heart, really, to see the money that we have to spend to keep this facility operating,” he confessed, when at the end of that spending the facility will still be inadequate.

Yet this was the covenant established after two jail initiatives failed: First fix the issues that underlie and contribute to overcrowding and over-incarceration. Then, build the right sized jail.

Asked by the Council’s committee chair Barry Buchanan if the Sheriff would support a smaller, more centrally located jail facility, Elfo affirmed, “I would.”

Council continues to work through proposed revisions to the county’s antiquated standards for correctional facilities.

In November, the Sheriff and Prosecutors offices outlined the challenges with the cumbersome and obsolete code that governs county corrections facilities. A majority of counties in Washington do not have code provisions governing their correctional facilities, providing them with greater flexibility to maintain operational standards and policies.

“With the recent strategy of population draw down, new jail use agreements, and contracting with outside correctional facilities for placement of Whatcom County and local city inmates, we have stabilized the population to an acceptable level,” the Sheriff summarized in November.

The hard work is paying dividends, and when the county again approaches the public with a better plan those dividends may equal approval at the polls.