Whatcom Justice Reform: The Big Fib

When voting for sheriff implies structural change

When voting for sheriff implies structural change

A proposed tax for a new jail has failed twice at the polls, the second failing by a ten times greater margin than the first. Yet the County wants to try again. In the wake of these stunning voter rebukes, the County initiated a “listening tour”, traveling the county to better hear citizens’ concerns.

The committee recently made a report to the community.

The good news is that the consecutive ballot failures have indelibly etched the handwriting of reform on the jailhouse wall and the County now finally appears resigned to take alternatives seriously. However, policymakers still want a new tax and jail.

In the Justice Update, Prosecutor Richie outlined the steps he has implemented since taking office. These include a new advisory team, a new data system, a client survey of barriers to reentry. Policies are being reviewed and revised, such as with low level drug offenses and an expanded drug court. Softer warrant policies provide a second chance to appear and resolve legal issues. A LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion) program is under development and will be integrated with the GRACE (Ground-Level Response And Coordinated Engagement) program. Officers with mental health specialties are being added. People are working to supply better treatment options.

The committee underscores their renewed commitment to widespread reform, including better stakeholder engagement, a juvenile justice roundtable, more warrant quashing and better advocacy for mental health and treatment services.

The committee notes a number of gaps that must be filled before we can meet these new goals. Some are obvious, like better housing options, space for treatment and classes, more beds for care, less delayed care, more navigators to guide people through services and better prevention preparedness - like better conflict resolution and communication skills.

However, they identified one gap overarching the ‘nuts and bolts, bricks and mortar’ needs - A Trust Gap. Voters don’t trust the County’s efforts for a new jail. Governments never want to easily forego an authorized tax, so the County is determined to work on building trust to find a measure that can survive the polls.

I have some bad news. Filling the trust gap may take more than they think. The bitter truth for the committee and County is that so far, it looks like a big put-up job and a lot of hooey, to wit:

It looks like -
- someone, somewhere, without much public process, just decided to build a large, rural, regional detention center, and forced that decision into the planning and policies.
- tax measures previously passed to fix the jail were consistently diverted to “other law enforcement purposes”
- millions have been spent on planning a jail before a competent needs-assessment could possibly determine what size is best.
- misleading materials and arguments were unapologetically used to promote both the rural jail siting and ballot measures.
- a downtown site was never considered even though planning principles unequivocally state that next to the courthouse is best.
- detainees were intentionally over-incarcerated to create overcrowding to justify a new jail.
- repairs and improvements were intentionally avoided, creating inhumane conditions used to justify a new jail.
- we were (are) told the jail is “crumbling” (unsafe) when, in fact, the building is sound.
- public processes were gamed to exhaust stakeholders and concerned citizens in multiple planning episodes, always presuming the same predetermined outcome.
- the council was rushed into buying sub-par property at an over-premium price for a new jail of unknown size.
- the property is mostly known or suspected wetlands, FEMA floodways, an archeological site and toxic ash dump surrounded by a rendering plant, waste storage and processing facilities, an asphalt plant, the railroad tracks and freeway.
- after implementing only the first of thirty-some VERA report recommendations, incarceration is down 15% in only a few months, the average stay down by 30%, and the County has already saved many thousands.

This is just a start and it all adds up looking like a Big Fib. That is why the two ballot measures failed and why there is a trust gap.

Rather than a tax, the County’s next “measure” should be one of truth and reconciliation, not a feel good makeover with the same end result. No amount of lipstick will get this past the electorate. The Big Fib needs to be responsibly unwound. Yes, the prosecutor and sheriff ginned up the need for a new jail. Yes, the council took a policy nap while they did it. No one was apparently responsible for misleading pictures used in an even more misleading jail mailer. Not examining nagging problems only exacerbates mistrust.

Reform is a good thing to aim for, but it won’t move forward hobbled by preconceived conclusions. Yet, the Whatcom Public Health, Safety and Justice Initiative has the objective of a new tax and jail already baked into their plan. Reform efforts must make room and time for differing views to be heard, explored and compared. Yet the renewed emphasis on outreach and stakeholder engagement has notably not included, much less acknowledged, any major critics - not those who lobbied and campaigned against the measure, those who researched and wrote about its flaws, nor those who have doggedly participated and published volumes of analyses and alternatives to spearhead the very reforms being adopted. True reform requires us to admit where and when we’ve been wrong. Yet, the County ignores the Big Fib, endorses the incumbent sheriff and trusts him to shepherd their reforms.

I support the County’s reforms. But they need to do more. This onion needs a lot more peeling. Criminal justice is big business, commanding 70% of the County budget, and it butters a lot of bread. There is a lot at stake for a lot of people. There is abundant opportunity to turn an economic drain and engine of social trauma to the community’s advantage. But ignoring Big Fibs is not the way to start.

In fairness to Elfo, he couldn’t have done it alone. But he did what he could, and there is faint comfort knowing he was just part of a larger gambit, one below the public’s radar.

Make no mistake, it is the Restorative Community Coalition and the likes of Irene Morgan and, especially, candidate Joy Gilfilen who tirelessly dogged the administration and outlined both the system’s failures and alternatives. Without this inexorable force, there would be no Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, or any of this newfangled “listening.” The goal might still be a huge, county-bankrupting jail. The situation was made clear when the most common official response to comments on the new jail project review was, “This comment is outside the scope of this review.” Well, guess who didn’t shut up? These folks deserve a better seat at the table to which they have literally, shouting into the wind, personally driven jail reform. But the sheriff has the best seat.

It’s possible incumbent Sheriff Elfo has turned over a new leaf. That’s their story. I’m not going to bank on it. County ranks have closed too quickly, sticking to the original aims and effectively shutting out the reformers. Maybe we will need a new tax and jail, but I am voting for the candidate who says we don’t need them and wants to try something different. Elections give citizens a chance to reboot entrenched systems, but we only get only get two choices. If you want a new tax and jail, vote for the candidate all the politicians wanting a new tax and jail support, unanimously.

I don’t want another tax and jail. I might support a tax for the services we need, but I want change. So I’ll be voting for Joy Gilfilen. She deserves a better seat.

Note: There is a LOT more background in the related Links.

Related Links

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

Bob Burr

Oct 04, 2019

When will the County sell the Ferndale property it so overpaid for because it woulraise the value of neighboring property?  Even though property values have gone up dramatically since the purchase of this land, I would be willing to bet the County could not get its money back.

Why does the County never have in-house expertise and have to rely on consultants all the time? It could hire people with expertise for far less that they pay consultants. Will the jail consultant be once again  be a representative of the prison industrial complex?

I get so pissed off by the County on so many fronts preferring endless study to actually making decisions and doing something.

Bob Burr



Tim Paxton

Oct 07, 2019

Nice summary Tip!   Doubt that the County Council will have someone read it to them however.

So….when exactly was the County Council going to provide a Forensic Accounting of where the millions already previously paid for the “new jail” went?         Never?   Thought so.  It is another council scam.

I am voting to help our outgoing & dynamic sheriff get back home to Florida where he clearly yearns to go!    Maybe they need a new jail there?      Vote for Joy.  No new taxes, no new jail.


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