On Monday, July 10, The Vera Institute presented its data findings on the Whatcom County justice system at a special meeting of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF). It took months for the Vera Institute to obtain the necessary data on the County Jail population in 2016, but the results confirmed stunning racial disparities in the jailed population, as well as a sizable pre-trial population that could be significantly reduced with the use of evidence-based methods of incarceration prevention. The Vera Report and its power point presentation (along with an audio recording of the presentation) are on the website of the IPRTF.
The Bellingham City Council was unable to participate in the Vera Institute’s presentation to the Task Force, because of its meeting schedule on Monday, including an afternoon meeting of the Committee of the Whole, at which time the Council voted 7-2 (April Barker and Dan Hammill opposed) to approve the Jail Facility Use Agreement—despite continued objection over the location, size and cost of the facility. The City Council stated that the County was the decision maker on those factors, and the City had expressed its objections to the County’s proposed cost, size of the jail and moving the location away from the downtown Courthouse.
City Council member Dan Hammill is the City’s representative on the IPRTF. He serves on the Behavioral Health Subcommittee that is creating the GRACE program—or Ground Level Response and Coordinated Engagement. He also serves on the Law and Justice Committee which has proposed an evidence-based Pretrial Risk Assessment tool. Both of those programs are designed to have significant impacts on the jail population, because they will prevent people from going into the jail and address issues like substance abuse disorders and mental illness.
At the City Council’s 7 p.m. meeting on Monday, July 10 (the same day of the Vera Institute presentation), Councilmember Hammill presented a rational and persuasive appeal against approval of the Jail Facility Use Agreement.
First, he objected to the use of a sales tax to fund the jail. He called out Washington State as “the most regressive state in the union for taxes and adding another increase in the sales tax adds to the structural divide between rich and poor in Bellingham and Whatcom County.” If the sales tax proposal is approved, then the County and Bellingham residents would pay an 8.9 percent sales tax—the same as Bellevue.
Second, he objected to the Ferndale location, which cost taxpayers $7 million—not including expensive site mitigation. He explained that Whatcom County taxpayers, including Bellingham, have already paid for this property once through real estate excise tax and general fund tax dollars. Now taxpayers are being asked to pay for it again through the sales tax.
Third, the location takes Bellingham police officers away from keeping the public safe while driving to and from the Ferndale location to book arrestees.
Fourth, the County is asking Bellingham and the other cities to pay for the demolition of the existing jail on Prospect Street, but only after the City contributes to improvements on that jail.
Fifth, Hammill objected to the 15.8 percent Bellingham share of costs on building the jail when the City’s historic use of the jail is 13.4 percent. That is $291,000.00 that Bellingham would be subsidizing Whatcom County—or $8.7 million for the next 30 years. And that does not factor in the 20 percent reduction in incarceration that Bellingham has achieved with electronic home monitoring—so the number that Bellingham would subsidize the facility would be much higher.
Finally, Hammill objected to the jail planning process, and the apparent lack of interest by both Councils in the results of the Vera Institute Report and the substantial work of the City and the IPRTF. He stated as follows:
One of the main complaints that I have of this proposal is that the Bellingham City Council is being asked to do our work out of order and in isolation of mitigating facts. We are not being asked to consider reforms or improvements to our local criminal justice system in determining the size, location or cost of the jail. In fact, those items are not even up for discussion. The only component that we are being asked to consider is Bellingham’s contribution to the building of the facility.
The fundamental problem with getting a new facility built is the lack of understanding on the county’s part that decision makers—including informed voters—need data and evidence to reach a conclusion. We have just over one year’s worth of data on Bellingham’s electronic home monitoring program. What happens when the County and the small cities implement their versions of this program in a meaningful way? How will that affect the jail population? How will new intervention programs like GRACE and the Pretrial Assessment increase release on personal recognizance and police field discretion favoring citations and warnings versus arrest affect the numbers? What happens if the County sends their long-term post-conviction offenders to Yakima—that comprises most of the population in the jail?
And more broadly, how will sustained investments in our children, like the Bellingham Promise and stewards of children like Futures Northwest affect crime rates in the next 30 years? When kids are loved and supported, encouraged and connected to their community I think they end up in school and in jobs and not in jail.
The salient point is that without the data, we are being asked to support and sign-off on a facility whose actual size and therefore cost is unknown. We don’t have the real number because we don’t have the real data—until today. This is the Vera Institute Report: “A Data Driven Understanding of the Whatcom County Justice System.” I’ll read the conclusion:
“Through interagency collaboration and coordination, Whatcom County must address the systemic drivers of jail population growth. 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.”
[July 10, 2017 Vera Institute of Justice Report, p. 9].
Finally, Hammill added, “I stand behind that conclusion. These are the experts. I will not vote for the Jail Facility Use Agreement because I do not think it is the right thing to do.”
Ultimately, the Council voted to approve the Jail Facility Use Agreement, because it appeared (to the City’s members of the Jail Stakeholder’s Workgroup) to be the best agreement the City would get from the County, and the County has the City over a barrel. The City needs a jail to house its misdemeanants and the County owns and runs the jail.
Before the Ink is Dry on the Vera Institute (Preliminary) Report the County Council votes 4-3 (Mann, Buchanan and Donovan opposed) to put the Jail Sales Tax back on the ballot
On Tuesday, July 11, after another Vera Institute presentation, the County Council narrowly approved a resolution (with Weimer, Browne, Brenner and Sidhu in favor) to force the voters (again) to decide on whether to be taxed for a jail of unknown size and cost on LaBounty Road in Ferndale.
The Bellingham Herald recently reported that Skagit County completed its 400-bed facility at a cost of $48 million. Councilmember Weimer requested the County Executive to explain the current $110 million estimate for construction of the Whatcom County facility. The Executive presented his explanation with the caveat that “we’ve tossed this little presentation together as we were sitting in our seats in the last few minutes.” A stunning admission for a proposed $110 million cost estimate that ought to be fully laid out line-by-line item and vetted before the issue is put to voters. This was the Executive’s explanation (in his own words):
The construction costs for the Skagit Jail were $48,718,308.00. The total developed cost for the project was $62,601,181, because of additional soft costs (unidentified by the executive). So the starting point is just under $63 million. They have 400 beds. If you take that and multiply it by 476 we end up with a cost of about $74,970,000. According to the County’s Jail consultant DLR, the Rider Levett Bucknall construction cost increases utilize the following annual escalation rates: 2015 - 5 %; 2016 - 4.6 %; 2017 - 4.1; 2018 - 4.1; 2019 - 4.1. The Mortenson construction escalation rates are basically close to being the same. Compared to when Skagit went out for bid we’re looking at something like a 20 percent cost increase.
We would probably go out for the civil work first try to get that going and get the preload done at the site and then go for the construction and we might be at between 18 and 22 percent. If you add that on we’re talking $90 million. And then other things you have to consider with that $90 million is that 18 percent of the Skagit beds are dormitory style which makes their square footage smaller. We’re doing four-person cells because staff is lower in the evenings and if there’s an incident it’s easier to control than if you have inmates in a tank.
In our costs, we have the old jail removal, we have the Sally port at the courthouse, we have one and a half pods in the building because we’re over 400 beds and we’re building the 200 by 200 pods that have the 8 pies in them. We’re building one and a half of those pies so we have to include two control centers.
We do have extra site work. There’s a fair amount of civil work that needs to be done on that site. A quarter of the site is wetlands that will remain untouched but we do have wetlands mitigation.
We have a courthouse holding facility, removal of the old jail and then the costs that we need to put into the old jail to put a band aid on it and when you add that all together we’re talking about $110 million.
The Executive stated that all these costs “have been vetted and discussed with all the mayors of all the cities,” and that “we’re five years behind [Skagit] and that five years is costing us literally millions of dollars.”
This is more of his high pressure sales tactics. He did not explain that the $110 million is an estimate, and that in three years there will be a “true up” with the full amount determined for the purposes of allocation of costs among the parties to the Jail Facility Use Agreement.
The Executive’s presentation made the estimated $110 million cost of the jail seem insignificant. He spoke so confidently about the “plan,” while completely overlooking the fact that he has no firm idea of the ultimate cost of his jail. Yet, when he speaks, it seems as though we are in Emerald City and not Whatcom County—with its 200,000 or so citizens (including as yet unborn children that will be paying for this jail 30 years from now).
Councilmembers Browne and Sidhu emphasized that they hoped to reduce the ultimate cost of the jail with “value engineering.” Councilmember Brenner expressed her support for the LaBounty Road property because she envisioned gardens in which inmates could grow and eat their own food, and animal therapy to assist those suffering from mental illness. She did not address the fact that she once protested about the contamination immediately adjacent to the LaBounty Road property (that still likely exists there) and she did not explain that the greenhouses at the minimum security Irongate Facility on Division Road have been abandoned. The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior.
But, most importantly, the jail should be a short-term facility. Farms and animal husbandry are best developed at Prisons, where the inmate population tends to have longer stays.
Brenner did address citizen concerns about the $6 million purchase of the LaBounty Road property. She asked the Executive to confirm that the property (as required by law) was purchased for fair market value. The Executive said the County had performed an appraisal, and in the interest of transparency, that appraisal must be available to the public on the Whatcom County website. In any case, it is unlikely that the LaBounty Road Property would get a single interested buyer if it was listed today for the $6 million paid for it by the County.
Councilmember Mann opposed the proposal and argued for criminal justice reforms and renovation of the existing jail:
This is not an easy topic. We’ve been working on it for a long time. I hope we would all sitting here recognize that our criminal justice system as a nation is flawed. We spend too much money. We lock up too many people. And we get poor outcomes. In what other endeavor would we continue to do that? I think we have a lot of room in our current policies for reducing our incarceration numbers. I think if we look at the national trends for crime rates, if we look at the technology that’s evolving daily, as far as our GPS and alcohol monitoring—and who knows what will come next. We have overflow options available at Yakima for us that’s very affordable.
To commit another $100 million of concrete and steel makes no sense to me. I think our money would be much better spent reducing incarceration, repairing our existing jail—as dilapidated as it is. I think that would save us $50 to $60 million dollars right off the bat and we can do that.
I feel like we are at an inflection point in policy and recognition nationwide, and to build a $100 million jail that is based on the last 100 years of flawed policy is a big mistake.
The last point I want to address is the argument that this [jail tax] is so important that we should put it on the ballot and let the people decide. I really disagree with that. I think it’s irresponsible. This issue is so complex and we are so conflicted about it that it is not right to just put it on the ballot and let the people decide. If we put it on the ballot, then that means we are endorsing it. And if you’re not willing to vote for it when the ballot comes to your house, then do not vote to put it on the ballot. When you vote to put it on the ballot then you’re giving it your stamp of approval. I can’t do that. I think we can do better. I think we can do better than this.
Councilmember Buchanan added:
I cannot support this. There are three obvious looming issues that the voters rejected last time—questions about cost, questions about location and questions about size. And Mr. Weimer talked about the fact that we had to take a leap of faith to assume that incarceration would be reduced by incarceration reduction and prevention programs.
I felt today that I really understood how far the cart was ahead of the horse, with the Vera Institute presentation and from the Incarceration Reduction and Prevention Task Force. It was encouraging to see that the work is really good but it’s behind. Not behind because of anyone’s fault but because it’s just where we are in the process. So I feel like we can make tremendous gains by allowing that work to continue before we get out and make a leap of faith maybe in the wrong direction. The other thing is that Councilmember Mann referred to our justice system as antiquated. So is our management model of corrections. Our model goes back to Tombstone Arizona and Dodge City where the local sheriff ran the jail. Things have progressed since then. We have a number of counties in the State of Washington that have gone to a Department of Corrections where they have a professionally trained and experienced director of corrections that comes in and has experience with implementing programs that come from incarceration prevention studies.
Our society has matured a lot in the last 100 years and to me the old adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure is very appropriate here. I support building a new jail; the old jail is one we should be ashamed of, but we need to make sure we do this right. We need to make sure that we’re not taking a leap of faith that will put us in a bad situation either financially or just not doing the right thing. So I’m not going to support it.
Voters will now be asked—a second time—to approve a Jail Sales Tax for an incomplete plan on which both City and County Councils have members with serious reservations. The process has been backward, and just as we get to development of an evidence-based needs assessment, the County moves forward without regard to the very real possibility that the jail population might be significantly reduced with evidence-based programs developed by the City of Bellingham, the IPRTF and the Vera Institute (the experts in the field of justice systems nationwide).