Editor note: Barry Buchanan is the Chair of both the Whatcom County Council and the Stakeholder Advisory Committee.
I would like to take this opportunity to share my thoughts and experiences on the Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) for the Whatcom County jail. My understanding was that the County Council created this committee to discern the needs and wants of the community at large and would then use those discoveries to develop requirements for jail facilities in Whatcom County. To a significant degree, the SAC has not achieved the council’s stated goals.
In your recent presentation to council, you said an implementation team would continue SAC’s work, defining requirements based on the SAC report. I would strongly encourage everyone to read, review, and consider this report. It is supposed to be an attempt to capture our community’s priorities for our justice system into the future. And while I believe it is possible to get from where we are to where we need to be in the next year, I have concerns about this report. For this reason, and the shortcomings I will outline below, I voted against the SAC Final Report.
SHORTCOMINGS OF THE EFFORT
From the beginning, the committee was dominated by the two-thirds of its members who are currently involved in our justice infrastructure. It would seem they have had ample time and opportunity to provide input to and/or make changes to our current circumstances. This group has also been less inclined to aid in the process of discovering the needs and wants of the public.
As one of a handful of outsiders, and in order to do my job, I needed information: (1) What is currently being done; (2) What are the needs and wants of the public; and (3) Nationally, what are the best practices and root causes we are discovering. There were a few attempts at collecting diverse and lived experience, but I would not say that goal was achieved. I was one of the few members representing any sort of racial diversity. Frankly, I discovered much more about lived experience as it relates to our county's justice system in one 30-minute meeting hosted by the Restorative Community Coalition (RCC) in January of this year.
There have been two official surveys and an ad-hoc survey. One official survey focused on SAC members, the other on community members reviewing the goals of the SAC members. There was no official survey that focused on discovery from the community at large. Rather, SAC wanted to identify points of high-level consensus and agreement. My concern is that maximizing consensus unintentionally minimizes discovery.
The ad-hoc survey was led by a volunteer and SAC member. This survey asked questions of jail inmates as well as the staff. Ironically, this ad-hoc survey produced the most valuable input for me. The dominant message was that inmates were, first and foremost, looking for support services that focused on their actual needs, as well as supportive infrastructure, and especially housing to support re-entry.
On the other hand, SAC members who have been involved with the jail consistently referred to the jail’s physical conditions. There was no analysis of the physical plant or why it had been so poorly maintained. Was the poor maintenance an inherent aspect of the facility, or just a lack of resources being applied to maintenance?
GETTING ON TRACK
The good news is that we can still do the work we need to do. We don't need to rush to undertake a jail tax levy. We can still conduct a study to determine the needs and wants of the public. We can also still review and revise the VERA Institute of Justice Report to Whatcom County. These are measures I called for two years ago, and again one year ago. This will give us a much better feel for where we actually are as a community in relation to best practices and root causes of incarceration nation wide. It will also provide greater visibility into the unique challenges of our community. We should also review the work of other groups, like the Prison Policy Institute, that are working nationally to advance our understanding of an effective justice system.
Concurrently, we can allocate the jail taxes that have already been levied on our citizens to develop and fund re-entry programs, and deliver training and services while people are still incarcerated so they can begin the process of re-entry before they are released. We can develop pre-trial support and advocacy services that will bolster and augment the public defenders role. We can develop educational programming via Zoom, both inside and outside the jail. We can fully fund and resource programs like GRACE, LEAD, Drug Court, Court Navigators, Bail Reform, Mental Health Court, Alternate Response Teams, and Emergency Housing.
We have to embrace the responsibility of public safety as our responsibility rather than that of the justice system. In my opinion, grabbing people and throwing them away is like throwing a boomerang that comes back bigger and uglier. The justice system we have created is a complex maze of processes and procedures that are typically insensitive to the actual needs and advancement of the individuals caught in the system.
Atul Deshmane, Laurel