On October 23, the Vera Institute of Justice presented its findings and recommendations regarding the Whatcom County Criminal Justice System, in a four-hour presentation before the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. At Councilmember Ken Mann’s request, the presentation was made prior to the expected release of Vera’s final report on November 1—presumably because the ballots for the November 7 election were mailed to Whatcom County voters on October 18.
Notably absent from this presentation were Sheriff Bill Elfo, County Executive Jack Louws and County Jail Chief Wendy Jones. Prosecuting Attorney David McEachran and Health Department Human Services Manager Anne Deacon not only attended, but actively challenged and rebutted The Vera Institute’s identification of “touch points” within the system that might be examined and changed to reduce the county jail population without increased risk to public safety.
The prosecuting attorney’s active participation in this meeting and resistance to Vera’s suggested areas of examination and reformation should be put into context. McEachran was first elected to the office of Whatcom County prosecutor in 1974, after having served as a deputy prosecutor for two-and-a-half years. He has won election as Whatcom County prosecuting attorney in 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994 (unopposed), 1998 (unopposed), 2002 (unopposed), 2006 (unopposed), 2010 (unopposed) and 2014 (unopposed). The available county election results only go back to 1993, so it is unclear whether he ran unopposed in all of his elections since 1974. He was most recently re-elected as the prosecuting attorney on November 4, 2014
McEachran’s office has a four-year term, which means (assuming completion of his latest term) that . McEachran is in his 11th four-year term as prosecuting attorney. He is the longest serving prosecuting attorney in Washington state history, where the average term is eight years.
The unprecedented 44-year tenure of one individual in one of the most—if not the most—powerful position in the criminal justice system in Whatcom County raises questions of unopposed reach, power and influence. Over the past 40-plus years, McEachran has been the architect of change that has resulted in a closed criminal justice system where most, if not all participants in the criminal justice system, are subject to or impacted by McEachran’s sphere of influence. Only one such example of that power and reach is the difficulty/inability to find any individual willing to oppose him in an election—and the subsequent career trajectory of those who have opposed him.
McEachran is subject to a state law mandate that “[t]he prosecuting attorney shall:
“Seek to reform and improve the administration of criminal justice and stimulate efforts to remedy inadequacies or injustice in substantive or procedural law.” RCW 36.27.020.
The county hired the Vera Institute of Justice specifically to provide information to the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force regarding the criminal justice system in Whatcom County and proposed reforms to that system based on data and evidence of success in other jurisdictions. The Whatcom County prosecuting attorney is under a legal mandate to “reform and improve” the “administration of criminal justice” in a system that he is primarily responsible for administering.
The Vera Institute of Justice has existed for 50 years, and is a nationally-recognized leader in criminal justice reform. Instead of dismissing its findings, the Whatcom County prosecuting attorney must follow his state mandate to stimulate efforts to reform the criminal justice system in Whatcom County, or be in violation of state law.
The time for reform is now. Higher taxes to build a new jail will not further that goal. The first step is to stop funneling more tax revenue to the county until a concerted effort is made to consider, examine and implement Vera Institute-identified reforms that may have a significant impact on the county jail population.
Second, the county must comply with its legal obligation to operate a safe and humane jail. For many years, inhumane and unsafe conditions for inmates and staff have been used by the county as the reason for a new jail. However, the county itself has failed to maintain the jail.
The work of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force and the Vera Institute of Justice has just begun. To continue that work and bring needed change to the Whatcom County Criminal Justice System—Reject Proposition 2017-6.
For more details on the Vera Institute presentation and the county response read Cascadia Weekly’s “The Gristle” entitled “Statistics of Shame” .