Across the nation local jurisdictions—where 40 percent of inmates are incarcerated—have recognized that increasing incarceration does not increase public safety. In fact, there are proven alternatives to incarceration that reduce recidivism and therefore do increase public safety. See Washington State Institute for Public Policy, “Evidence-Based Public Policy Options to Reduce Future Prison Construction, Criminal Justice Costs, and Crime Rates” (October 2006). There is a growing nationwide trend away from mass incarceration and toward diversion programs for the mentally ill, those struggling with substance abuse and other issues (often related to poverty). These diversion programs are specifically designed to provide an alternative to jail—in other words they keep people from entering jail in the first place. That is the key to: (1) Addressing recidivism; (2) reducing the current and future need for prison beds; and (3) saving money for taxpayers. The current jail/prison system has a revolving door because the incarcerated population—when released—often has nowhere to go, cannot vote or get a job, and cannot qualify for housing because of their criminal records. This results in cycles of poverty, homelessness and incarceration that become intergenerational. See Wakefield and Wilderman, “Children of the Prison Boom: Mass Incarceration and the Future of American Inequality” (2011). Why then, is Whatcom County pushing construction of a new and costly jail and sheriff’s headquarters, even while the rest of the country has accepted that mass incarceration is a bad deal for taxpayers and their communities?
No means No
In November 2015, Whatcom County citizens rejected Proposition 2015-1, which requested approval of a 2/10 of 1 percent increase in the Jail Use Sales Tax sought by the County to build a large-scale new jail and sheriff’s headquarters in Ferndale. Undeterred, the County has worked since then to get the measure back on the ballot and move the county’s jail plan forward. The County’s push back in the face of citizens’ rejection of the tax measure is the essence of an “Illusion of Inclusion,” where citizen participation in local government is impeded and ignored. Do our elected officials work for the Citizens—who are nominally at the top of the Whatcom County Organizational Chart? Whatcom County Citizens will likely face the same key decision point—because the County intends to get the Jail Use Sales Tax back on the ballot in either August or November 2017. We can choose (again) between raising taxes to invest in a massive expansion of our criminal justice system and tripling (at a minimum) our incarcerated population, or we can reject the tax (again) and hit the reset button on the proposed new jail on LaBounty Road in Ferndale—the largest capital project in Whatcom County history. The currently-proposed new jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters will require not only approval of an increase in the Jail Use Sales Tax, but at least $125 million debt in the form of bonds with a payout of approximately $230 million over the next 30 years (if the current estimates are accurate—they are more likely to be underestimates). Operating costs over that period will exceed $1 billion. If the Jail Tax passes on the second try, then the funds will provide the County a blank check to build whatever Jail and Sheriff’s facility the County elected officials decide to build. If they build the jail, then they will fill it. If they build the jail, then Whatcom County will no longer be the award-winning, fiscally-responsible county it is now—or have any chance to be a leader in effective criminal justice reform.
Stop Development of a New County Jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters pending Objective Analysis of Alternatives
There is a viable alternative to moving forward with the largest capital project in Whatcom County history and it has never been considered or explored—that is to analyze the feasibility of renovating and/or expanding the existing Whatcom County Jail. The County has a duty to not only consider renovation of the existing jail, but to perform a valid and objective Needs Assessment—a key initial step in the jail planning process. The Needs Assessment should be conducted by an objective researcher and we—the Citizens of Whatcom County—should insist that it be provided to the public for review and comment. The Needs Assessment would, in part, profile the inmate population and allow the County and City to consider alternative, non-custody sanctions, which are less expensive than adding more beds to a detention facility. It would also focus objectively on the needs of the Whatcom County Jail, relying upon accurate data about the inmate population that the County has not provided. For example, the County has stated that it cannot provide an accurate count of the number of inmates incarcerated over a one month period because multiple charges per inmate skew the numbers. Jail Manager Wendy Jones said she’d need a full time employee to determine that number. She might consider a simple count of the meals served per day over a month-long period—because it’s unlikely (for example) that any inmate with multiple charges pending would get served a separate meal for every charge. Similarly, the County has admitted that up to 70 percent of inmates in Whatcom County are held pretrial (and some are included in Sheriff’s Work Crews although they’ve not been convicted of any crime). The number and percentage of inmates held pre-trial (and under what charges) is a key data point that must also be included in a valid Needs Assessment.
Importantly, there has been time to study and implement diversion and other policies that have successfully reduced jail populations nationwide—and now locally—since Proposition 2015-1 (the Jail Sales Tax) was rejected by Whatcom County voters in November 2015. Renovation (and/or expansion) of the existing jail may well be both doable and fiscally responsible. In fact, the County Executive plans a limited remodel of the existing Jail to safely house inmates until the proposed new jail facility is completed in 2020 (he assumes that it will be built). A comprehensive remodel of the existing Jail as a permanent solution would be far less expensive to the County taxpayer, and would likely encourage the continued development of policies that have reduced incarceration and recidivism and have increased both public safety and the success of at-risk populations. The entire nation is moving away from mass incarceration, even while Whatcom County elected officials appear dedicated to that path.
Whatcom County is a microcosm of local city and county, state and federal criminal justice systems nationwide. Hyper local citizen involvement to change government and criminal justice systems matters because it can create better government and outcomes (both fiscally and within our community) and it is scalable. The purpose of the following report on the “Illusion of Inclusion,” is to show how Whatcom County has arrived at a point where citizen inclusion in key decisions is an illusion, and instead the will of a few elected officials is driving an agenda of higher taxes, debt, incarceration and criminal justice policies that increase recidivism and poverty at the expense of public safety.
Next: The Illusion of Inclusion