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  1. Why do we need a new jail?
  2. What is the definition of an overcrowded jail?
  3. Why is overcrowding a problem?
  4. What is the cause of the overcrowding?
  5. What strategies have been used to address the overcrowding?
  6. Does Whatcom County offer jail diversion programs?
  • Why do we need a new jail?
    There are 2 primary reasons why a new jail is needed. 
    • Whatcom County has outgrown the capacity of the current jails.
    • The main jail is outdated and structurally deficient.

  • What is the definition of an overcrowded jail?
    In 1984, Whatcom County opened the current downtown jail.  It was designed to hold 148 people, and adequately address Whatcom County’s jail needs through 2009. Unfortunately, the jail population grew much faster than anyone anticipated throughout the United States and here in our county the overcrowding continued to grow over the years.  Overcrowding eventually caused the jail to turn some offender groups away and delay some court orders to arrest and hold people.   Any available space was converts to jail inmate housing so offenders could be held.  In 2006, the County opened a new, temporary, minimum security jail in the Irongate area of Bellingham, known as the Work Center. The Work Center was built to hold up to 150 inmates.  As a minimum security jail only certain types of inmates can be housed there.

    The 2004 voter approved .01% sales tax increase helped fund the construction of the Work Center and continues to partially support the operations.  The Work Center has helped take some of the pressure off of the main jail, but the inmate population continues to grow.  There was a small dip in the inmate population between 2010 and 2012, but it has started to go up again. 

  • Why is overcrowding a problem?
    Whatcom County has been sued for “conditions of confinement”. To date, the County has won those lawsuits. Other counties have not been as fortunate. In some places, such as Maricopa County in Arizona, the legal penalties from similar lawsuits have been in the tens of millions of dollars paid to offenders and their lawyers.

    Locally, we see inmate on inmate assaults and fights increasing as the facility gets more crowded.  Some of these incidents result in significant medical costs.  Overcrowding increases the risk of communicable diseases such as drug-resistant staph infections and respiratory diseases.  Overcrowding can also trigger problems for inmates who have pre-existing mental health issues.
    Overcrowding contributes to the erosion of the facility. The entire infrastructure to the building (plumbing, electrical, kitchen, laundry, even walls and doors) was built for a capacity of 148 inmates.   The life of the building has been significantly shortened due to the inmate population almost doubling.

  • What is the cause of the overcrowding?
    There are several reasons. The first is the increase in County population. Whatcom County grew faster over the past 30 years than was originally anticipated. An increase in County population has equaled larger jail populations. Another driving factor is the changes in Washington State Laws over the past 30 years. Legislative changes have included; mandatory arrests for domestic violence crimes, mandatory jail time for drunk driving and driving with a suspended license, stronger sentences for sex offenders, and new crimes such as identity theft. A big impact was the Sentencing Reform Act (SRA), which changed the sentences offenders received for some felony offenses. The result of SRA reduced sentences, which impacted jails because offenders were no longer serving their time in prison, but stayed in the County jail. This act became effective in 1984, the same year the main jail opened. The jail population grew faster than anticipated, in part because people who would have gone to prison stayed in the County jail, and they stayed in jail longer than other inmates.

    Another issue related to the legal changes is a decrease in supervision by the State Department of Corrections (DOC). Entire categories of inmates who used to be supervised by the DOC are now simply released into the community, and inmates who used to be returned to prison due to violation of their release conditions are now being held for 1-3 days in the jail, and then released back to the street.

    On average, approximately 60% of the County jail inmates are being held on felony charges (crimes such as burglary, robbery, sex offenses, assault and the making or selling of drugs). Serious crimes usually translates to higher bail while they are waiting for trial and longer jail sentences, resulting in higher jail population rates for longer periods of time.

    Recidivism is also a factor as some offenders come back to jail repeatedly and have multiple charges in more than one court. A majority of Whatcom County inmates in jail have drug and/or alcohol problems, and many of them have mental health issues. These issues contribute to re-offending.

  • What strategies have been used to address the overcrowding?
    The Sheriff’s Office has implemented many strategies to effectively respond to the overcrowding in the jail.  Prior to building the Work Center, the jail had a series of booking restrictions.  The Sheriff’s Office simply stopped booking people who fell within certain categories.  It started with offenders who had not paid a fine, then included people being arrested for crimes like trespassing or disorderly conduct.  By 2005, the jail would only book someone who was arrested on a felony charge or a domestic violence arrest.  This meant that drunk drivers, people who assaulted other people, people with warrants for failing to appear in court, etc. were simply given a citation and released. In one case with the City of Bellingham, one offender failed to go to court over 50 times on the same charge, because he knew the police couldn’t book him into jail.  Despite these restrictions, the jail population continued to grow.

    During this same time, offenders were released early, and offenders in the community were turned away repeatedly and unable to serve their jail time.    To house more inmates, additional beds were installed in existing cells, resulting in up to 3 inmates being housing in single person cells, and storage areas were converted to housing.  The last remedy was constructing and opening the temporary Work Center.  This helped for a number of years.  However, in early 2013, jail populations are again increasing. .

  • Does Whatcom County offer jail diversion programs?
    Yes;  Whatcom County has run jail diversion programs since the main jail opened.  These programs include:
    • Pre-Trial Supervision: Whatcom County District Court supervises about 225 inmates a day who have been released by a District Court Judge on Pre-Trial Supervision. These offenders are supervised by District Court Probation Officers, and allowed to remain in the community while waiting for their case to be settled. The program is used for offenders who often can’t afford bail, and are too high a risk to simply release into the community without any kind of supervision.
    • Work Crews: We have 7 inmate work crews. These offenders go out into the community 5 days a week and work on community projects. These projects include picking up litter along County roads, restoring salmon habitat, maintaining all of the landscaping around all County buildings and community projects like the Million Smiles playground in Lynden and picking up the 4th of July trash at Birch Bay. The crews work under the supervision of a civilian Crew Supervisor and each inmate is “paid” with time off of their sentence. Some of the crew members stay at the work center and some are able to return home each night. The crews regularly perform over a $1,000,000 worth of labor per year for the community.
    • Electronic Monitoring: We have one of the strongest Electronic Monitoring programs in the state. Inmates are authorized by a judge to be on the program, and then they are screened and evaluated to make sure they are appropriate. If accepted for the program, the inmates are fitted with an electronic “bracelet” around their ankle and are monitored. This program allows inmates to go to school, to work, to treatment etc. but still remain monitored. Inmates have to pay for this program, so they help off-set the staff and equipment costs.
    • Work Release: Inmates are authorized by a judge to be on this program, and they are screened and evaluated prior to being accepted. If they are accepted, they are able to go to work during their normal working hours, and then return to the Work Center for their time off. This allows them to keep their jobs and help support their families while serving their jail time. Inmates pay to be on this program on a sliding scale, depending on their income.
    • School release: This program works much like Work Release, but allows offenders to continue their education while completing their jail sentences. The fee is a flat rate, since many are not working.
    • Community Service: This program is run by District Court Probation and allows offenders to avoid jail time by working in the community for a set number of days. People fulfill their community service hours with a variety of different non-profit organizations, and are able to “pay back” the community through their labor, rather than sit in jail as a punishment.
    • Drug Court: This program is run by Whatcom County Superior Court. It allows offenders who meet criteria to be diverted into a special program aimed at helping them get their drug problems under control. It is a 1-2 year program and if successfully completed it, their charge will be dismissed. It allows eligible offenders to avoid jail, get help with their drug problem and get their legal case taken care of.
    • Misdemeanant Behavioral Health Unit: This program is supervised by District Court Probation and provides specialized supervision for Misdemeanor offenders with mental health issues. Probation works with various community services to stabilize the offender in the community and help them satisfy the court obligations. This may include helping get a mentally ill offender into treatment, working with the homeless coalition to find housing, or connecting the offender to organizations to assist with getting mental health medications.

      All of these programs work to move offenders out of the jail facilities and into alternatives that will allow them to complete sentences they have been given by a Judge.