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.
Comments by Readers
Joy GilfilenMar 03, 2017
Thank you, Amy, for standing up, speaking out and shedding light on this boondoggle of a problem. In my experience, the elected Executive branch isn’t quite telling the truth about the real costs and the management issues of the jail here.
One of the things Pete Kremen (our long-term County Executive) said was that our real costs of law and justice was closer to 65-70%... and that you needed to add up different allocations from different funds to see the truer number. And since Louws took over, the books were revised again, so all things are not visible or easily discernable - so once you get deeper into the finances, it is far worse than you think.
Also, our taxpayers already have paid more for jail and justice using sales taxes already…we added .1% for operations in 1999 that has been swallowed up, then in 2004 we added the mental health tax of .1% and then in 2008 passed another tax of .1% for building the new jail. Instead of doing what the public wanted, they took in the roughly $ 3.7 Million per tax x 3 = $11.1 million a year - and did not build the jail we expected. They built a jail industry expansion facility that increases revenue to the County and increases revenue to vendors and incarceration vendors…and expanded their arrests for non-violent offenses.
That is why I worked diligently against the jail tax in 2015 - and have worked to find alternatives to building a huge jail that becomes an economic concrete block that drags the taxpayers into bankruptcy to feed an alligator of the expanding privatized prison industries contractors.
The cost of incarceration is horrendous, for the ripple effects are not seen unless you look. Here is a great article from the Atlantic… Following the Money that in short shows how what is claimed to be an $80 billion national “cost of incarceration” balloons to $182 Billion when including other costs directly related to that.
And that is not all of it…no-one is tracking the real money that is made by the jail services contractor middlemen…who skim margins and profits by “21st Century Privateering”. This is a government/contractor services business model that has emerged where the people arrested become targets of the vendors and service providers. They and their families are controlled buyers…and they get gutted by the excessive costs of services sold to them under cover through the domination caused by the fact that once inside, the inmates and the families are “held hostage” to the companies who provides comissary, phone, credit card, video conferencing, bail bonds, and many other services.
In short it is parasitic, and it is gutting not just our lower class, it is hemoragghing our middle class. It has to stop. Good luck in your campaign…we need an active voice inside the Council.
Charis Snyder-GilbertMar 03, 2017
Excellent article, Amy! Best of luck - we need you.
Tip JohnsonMar 03, 2017
Plenty to read on this site about this subject. Sorry our search function is weak.
David CampMar 05, 2017
Thanks, Amy, for this excellent article. One thing to add is that a significant component of our County jail expenses is medical expenses for inmates - why? Because as soon as someone is incarcerated, they lose their Medicaid (Apple Health) benefits. Whereas people housed in a mental health facility or drug treatment facility have their medical expenses paid for by Medicaid. It’s a double whammy - jailing a mentally ill individual costs more than twice as much as housing them in a treatment facility - PLUS we have to pay their medical expenses also. It’s fiscally irresponsible at best and probably dereliction of duty.