County Releases EIS, Prepares to Purchase Jail Site

The county takes two big steps forward on the new jail, while still missing the point

The county takes two big steps forward on the new jail, while still missing the point

In all the flurry over curious Port results, Doug Ericksen for Congress and my all-male Odds and Ends last week, the recent activity on the jail almost went unnoticed. However, Whatcom County has taken two very big steps toward building a new jail in the last couple of weeks, and I wanted to give you an update.

First, the Environmental Impact Statement has finally been completed. After receiving 47 comments from citizens, businesses and public agencies, they have finished the EIS. Good news, there are not any new significant concerns with the land, it is large enough, in a location with minimal impacts to the surrounding neighbors and with easy I-5 access.

The bad news is how the jail consultants responded to citizen feedback. I was at the hearing where citizen after citizen poured their heart out, telling personal stories and advocating for increased mental health services as part of the package to reduce incarceration needs. This was their exact response, found on page 7 of the Final EIS:

"Several citizens advocated for strengthened mental health programs or mental triage facilities as an alternative or preventative to incarceration. While it is true that a significant portion of offenders in the jail have mental health issues, they are incarcerated because they have violated a state or local law. Law enforcement has  little if any latitude in those situations.

Whatcom County supports and encourages the diversion of appropriate mentally ill offenders into the mental health and community support systems. It must plan, however, for what appears to be actual need for jail capacity. It cannot responsibly ignore the factual information which indicates that mentally ill offenders will exist into the future and that sufficient space needs to be provided to house them in a humane manner."

It would be difficult for me to craft a more tone deaf response. In a memorandum included at the end of the EIS, Whatcom County jail administrator, Wendy Jones, acknowledges that more than $17 million has been cut from community health services statewide, but says, "We cannot responsibly ignore the factual information which indicates that mentally ill offenders will be with us now and into the future, and sufficient space needs to be provided to house them in a humane manner."

It seems there is a profound level of cynicism on the part of the county here. It seems their attitude is, "Boy, it's a shame that mental health services are chronically underfunded, but oh well, they don't really help anyway." I would hope that the County Council takes a more forward looking perspective and starts seriously funding mental health in our community.

The other frustrating aspect of the EIS is the contortions the document goes through over the number of jail beds. The document was written to assess a jail of 660 beds, but throughout the material, it reasserts that the first phase will only be for 521 beds. The rationale for this is that if and when we need to expand to 660 beds, a new EIS will not be required.

However, there is no timeline for when Phase Two will be implemented and I worry about mission creep: "If it is going to be 660 beds eventually, we might as well put up the structures while we have the guys out here, that way, we don't have to hire again." With changing laws, incarceration rates dropping and, hopefully, increased support for mental health services, we might not need 660 beds for another 50-60 years. I hope everyone involved in the process considers the question, "Why spend the money now, when things are tight?"

Speaking of money, the county moved the money in preparation for purchasing the LaBounty site. With the deal for the land expiring at the end of the year, the County Council has scheduled a discussion on the subject for the regular council meeting on Nov. 26th, with a final vote on the purchase scheduled for December 10th. The property will cost around $6.6 million dollars, a small part of the proposed $109 million that will be spent on this facility.

Despite some concerns about ignoring downtown Bellingham as a location, the County Council made the decision, last December, to locate the jail in the county. This site has been vetted with multiple studies and has been under consideration for almost two years. Considering where we are now and where we need to be, I have no problem with them purchasing the property. It is a necessary step forward.

However, just because we are purchasing the property does not mean we have finalized the design and implementation of the jail. It is just the first step and there will be several more decision points along the way. At every step, I will advocate for increased funding for mental health services, drug and juvenile court, and alternatives to punitive bail to ensure we reduce the need for such a large facility.

Join me at the County Council meeting November 26th in urging the council to fund mental health services as part of a package when building this new jail.

About Riley Sweeney

Citizen Journalist • Member since Aug 10, 2009

Riley Sweeney, raised in the Pacific Northwest, moved to Bellingham during the Bush years, worked on a cross-section of political campaigns during the Obama years, and then fled to the [...]

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