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Jail overcrowding is defined as housing more inmates than the building was designed to hold. In 1984, Whatcom County opened the current downtown jail, originally designed to hold 148 people. As jail population has grown, some limited remodeling helped to increase the operational capacity of the main jail to 212. However, the infrastructure (kitchen, laundry, visiting booths, medical clinic areas, etc.) was not able to grow along with the additional beds. With jail population outgrowing the expanded capacity the County, with taxpayer support, constructed a temporary work center in 2006 with an additional 150 beds and an operational capacity of about 127. Today, the combined operational capacity is 339. The maximum reported occupancy of the existing jail over the last two years occurred on May 11th, 2015. On that date, it was reported that a total of 389 offenders were under supervision.
In addition to design capacity, overcrowding is caused by several factors. Population increases, legislative changes related to mandated arrests, and the Sentencing Reform Act which pushed sentences that were once served in prisons to county jails, have all contributed to overcrowding. Overcrowding accelerates erosion to the building, has detrimental effects on the jail population, and escalates staffing needs.
National best practice recommends that jails should operate at 85% capacity to allow for separating incompatible groups of offenders that don't get along. Currently the jail consistently operates either at absolute capacity or over capacity. The existing jail was originally built to hold 148 offenders. With some limited remodeling, the operational capacity of the main jail should be 212. The absolute capacity of the Work Center is 150 beds and the operational capacity is about 127, depending on the offender mix. The combined operational capacity is 339. The maximum reported occupancy of the existing jail over the last two years occurred on May 11th, 2015. It was reported that a total of 389 offenders were under supervision. Of the total number of offenders 253 were in the main jail, 94 were housed at the work center and 29 were monitored on Electronic Home Detention.
A facility with 440 regular beds and 36 health facility beds is intended to house about 404 inmates (374 regular inmates and 30 inmates with medical issues). This means that if the 476 bed facility is operated at 85% it will have a design capacity that is 19% (404/339) larger than our current facilities.
Working in coordination with all Cities, the County crafted a Jail Facility Financing and Use Agreement (JFFUA) which was approved by all of the city and county councils in June and July of 2017.
The JFFUA sets the housing size at 440 regular beds, +/- 3%, with 36 medical/behavioral health beds.
The County has spent millions, and provided an open and transparent process (EIS, public meetings, Council decisions) in evaluating, deciding and purchasing the Labounty Road property over the last 5-7 years.
Slater Road is the northern boundary of Bellingham. From many locations in Bellingham the actual drive time to the Labounty site is equal to or less than driving to the downtown jail. For other county cities, and other law enforcement agencies such as the Washington State Patrol, it is easier and faster to get to the Labounty road site than working their way through downtown Bellingham. As an added benefit, the design and configuration of the New Jail, with appropriate booking and holding cells, will likely reduce the actual time that officers will need to be at the facility when booking inmates.
As part of the JFFUA, "The County agrees to provide jail services to facilitate the needs of inmates for Courts appearances at the Courthouse sally port and holding space for all parties during the hours that the facility is staffed and operational for the Courts, unless otherwise agreed upon."
In 2015, DLR architects projected the total project cost and construction cost of a new jail to be $91 Million, with a construction cost of $70 Million.
In comparison, the Skagit County jail costs for the total project and construction cost is $62 Million, with the construction cost at $48 Million. Skagit County built a 400 bed facility with 4 medical beds.
The 2017 projection of $110 Millions includes construction cost for a new jail, project costs, land acquisition costs, a 15-20% inflation increase from original projection, a sally port and holding facility in the courthouse, removal of the old jail, and about $3 Million in immediate repairs to the existing jail.
The County and all cities agreed to pay an equitable contribution for the construction costs, 78% of the construction costs are to be paid by the County and the remaining 22% are to be paid from the combined cities. The breakdown of the 22% paid by the cities is as follows:
The Public Safety Tax is projected to collect $7.97 Million in 2019, to pay the annual bond payment projected at $6.75 Million.
Starting in 2019, the cities are projected to have additional public safety tax revenue above their portion of the capital payment.
The excess sales tax can be used for public safety issues (police), including facilities and programs for medical and behavioral health services and incarceration prevention programs.
The JFFUA allocates a percentage of revenue back to the cities after the capital payment to the County. Any revenue the city keeps from the public safety tax can be used for public safety, behavioral health, and jail alternative purposes.
The JFFUA specifically indicates that "all parties agree to implement the recommendations of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) upon their final recommendation, where possible. This includes increasing the availability of alternative jail programs, including Electronic Home Detention, Work Release and Work Crew programs, and the establishment of a County pretrial supervision program."
The JFFUA indicates "to ensure the continued commitment to reducing incarceration and recidivism, the IPRTF will have a task force member on the ....Advisory Board."
In coordination with the approval of the JFFUA, Whatcom County and the City of Bellingham crafted and entered into a Memorandum of Agreement to ensure the continued support of incarceration prevention and reduction programs. The Parties agreed to recognize and fully support the goals of the IPRTF and commit over $30 Million dollars over 30 years to incarceration prevention and reduction programs.