Amy Glasser guest writes this article.
I have recently declared my intention to run for a seat on the Whatcom County Council. One of the issues motivating me is that 55% of Whatcom County’s budget is comprised of “Law and Order” dollars and there seems to be a continuing push by some county officials to build a “mega-jail” even though it has been rejected by citizen referendum.
In an effort to learn more about our county’s incarceration needs, I recently requested and was given a tour of the existing jail facility. During the tour, I was informed that twenty years ago inmates with mental health problems were confined to the uppermost of the jail’s three floors. Today, that population occupies every floor. As a social worker with thirty-eight years’ experience, it is painfully obvious to me that our jail has become a fiscally inefficient and morally reprehensible repository for many of our county’s mentally ill. It is all too evident that the “de-institutionalization” that took place in the 1980s was actually nothing more than a “re-institutionalization” of the mentally ill from psychiatric facilities to the incredibly inappropriate judicial system. It is obvious that continually recycling the mentally ill through the revolving door that is our jail not only costs more than proper treatment, it inherently serves to perpetuate and further exacerbate the problem. Although we do have a Mental Health Court in the county that valiantly attempts to address the legal entanglements of our mentally ill population, clearly it is insufficient.
Another significant portion of our jail population is comprised by substance abusers. Of course there is appreciable overlap between mental illness and substance abuse, but in the interest of my present comments here I will refer to them separately. Any reasonable person observing the facts can only conclude that many decades of attempts to legislate away our society’s substance abuse issues have been a flat-out failure. Rather than removing people from our communities, we would do far better to work toward finding ways to include and help our troubled citizens become reinvested members of society. This would markedly reduce expensive incarceration and preserve room in our jail for those who present serious threats to our safety. Our county does have a very effective Drug Court but like the Mental Health Court, it does not match the demand.
The Drug Court program could double in size to meet the needs of the community, especially if we refer people who were arrested for burglaries intending to finance their habit (which is not happening now). This type of court is both cost effective and, most importantly, appears to reduce recidivism.
So, do we keep banging our heads against a wall with ineffective strategies and build ever increasing jail capacity? Or do we look past our apparent preoccupation with punishment in favor of more fiscally efficient, more compassionately grounded and more effective investment in all our citizens? To some it might seem that dumping the mentally ill and substance abusers into an incarceration hole makes us safer and solves our social ills: out of sight, out of mind. But the reality is that incarceration neither teaches people how to become productive members of society, nor causes them to disappear. Eventually, people are released from jail and often are in worse shape than before their incarceration. Trying to get out of jail with only limited funds to set up a home, make court appearances, pay fines, arrange counseling and find a job—all while coping with their initial chronic problems—is a recipe for failure. Consider too, since a sizable portion of our detainees are not violent or dangerous offenders, rather are simply awaiting trial, we would do well to develop pretrial release programs for monitoring and/or diversion to treatment and services. A number of municipalities in our state have economically successful pretrial release programs operating to good effect.
Our largest gap however, is housing for the homeless. Not shelters or temporary beds, but homes. In order to be effective in reducing the incarceration rate we must recognize that if people do not have homes, they are more likely to end up right back in jail. Homes offer people a place and a stake in the community as well as an all-important physical address. That address is crucial to making them eligible for the services that can help them become contributing, rather than receiving, members of our community.
Professionally and personally I have never considered that people in jail were there because they were a danger to society, but rather as result of unfortunate circumstances, situations that many of us could easily have been in but for luck.
In taking a closer look at our local jail, I believe my professional opinion is in line with what would be best for our county as a whole. We need more treatment and prevention services than greater jail capacity. Re-appropriating some of our disproportionately large “Law and Order” budget toward housing the homeless, pretrial initiatives and expanded alternative courts and diversion programs are strategies that will lighten the load on our present jail, save money, and secure our collective safety.