by Emma Bjornsrud
The Whatcom County jail, located in downtown Bellingham, was completed in 1984 and is operational to this day. Designed to hold up to 148 people, and constructed based on outdated standards for the time, it lacks space for inmate housing and necessary services. Its population regularly reaches upwards of 200 to 300 people, separately housing male and female inmates.
Skagit County, by contrast, has about 97,000 fewer county residents, yet its jail has 400 beds with the capacity to double that.
Although a number of incarceration reduction programs and alternatives led to a decline in incarceration rates countywide between 2014 and 2021, some say the current jail has been too small to meet the needs of Whatcom County for decades.
In that time, the county has more than doubled in population — from 111,294 in 1984 to an estimated 230,104 in 2023.
The jail’s shortcomings became obvious by the early 1990s.
1993 State Law
A 1993 state law led to the establishment of the Whatcom County Law and Justice Council, which prompted the formation of the county’s Comprehensive Law and Justice Planning Project. Experts recommended the development of incarceration alternatives, and the construction of a minimum- or medium-security facility offering clinical services.
A voter-approved 0.1 percent sales tax, passed in 2004, funded the construction of an interim, minimum-security Work Center in the Irongate District of Bellingham with a capacity of 150 inmates, which began operations in 2006. The ongoing tax is used for Work Center construction and operational costs.
The center was built to be a temporary detention facility during county planning processes for a new jail, but it is still operational today. With the exception of 2020 and 2021 during the pandemic, the combined average daily population of the jail and Work Center each year has exceeded the combined capacity of the two facilities — 298 people — since the Work Center opened in 2006.
The County Council approved a resolution in 2011, creating the Jail Planning Task Force responsible for recommending the site, size and funding options for a new county jail, as well as considering the effects of alternatives to incarceration. The council approved a formal jail planning process and hired planners.
The county purchased about 40 acres in Ferndale on LaBounty Drive for just over $6 million, which met the criteria for a new jail location identified by the task force.
Failed Ballot Measure
In 2015, voters rejected, by a 51-49 margin, a 0.2 percent sales tax ballot measure to fund the construction of a new, 521-bed county jail at the LaBounty site. A 0.2 percent sales tax equates to 20 cents on a $100 purchase. While the large size of this proposed facility would have increased capacity, many members of the public were concerned, since efforts to address incarceration prevention and reduction were not also considered in tandem with the new jail proposal.
In response, the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) was established to identify needs within the system to find ways to reduce incarceration. The IPRTF now serves a second role as the Law and Justice Council.
After the ballot measure failed, the Vera Institute of Justice, a national organization working for criminal legal reform, was brought in to conduct an analysis of the Whatcom County jail population. Its report to the county and the IPRTF noted disproportionately high incarceration rates of Native American, Black and Hispanic people.
As another consequence of the failed ballot measure, the County Council contracted with an architectural firm, design2 LAST, to assess the physical conditions of the jail and Work Center. That study (3) found neither building met accessibility guidelines, and both needed improvements. Along with the significant number of upgrades necessary, the jail failed to meet seismic building codes and lacked a smoke evacuation system, among other major concerns.
A second ballot measure for a 0.2 percent sales tax increase to fund a new county jail failed at the polls in November 2017 by an even wider margin — 59 percent to 41 percent — than the 2015 ballot measure rejection. Critics said this one resembled the first ballot measure too closely, and lacked a needs assessment. The LaBounty site selected for the jail was criticized for being too large, expensive and far from services located in downtown Bellingham.
Current Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) Chair and county councilmember Barry Buchanan decided it was time for a new approach, and formed the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. He recruited fellow council members, and they held sessions throughout the county to hear citizen concerns.
“To bring the public with us, that’s so important, because they’re the ones that are ultimately going to be affected by it,” he said. “They’re the ones who are going to ultimately approve or disapprove at the ballot box. They have to be involved. It’s their government. It’s their criminal justice system.”
Overwhelmingly, Buchanan said, the public stated a preference for treatment over punishment whenever possible. He said conversations about behavioral health and substance abuse treatment, supportive housing and other important aspects of the criminal justice system didn’t come until after the 2017 initiative failed. This time around, committee members were going to take a more holistic approach.
Jack Hovenier, co-chair for the IPRTF and member of the SAC, advocated for this broader approach as well.
“Whatever we do is almost certainly going to be better than what we had,” Hovenier said. “Probably, whatever we do, 10 years from now, we’ll look back and go, ‘Oh, we could have done it better.’ So, I think, fortunately, the sheriff, the prosecutor, the judges and the council all seem quite committed to fairly thoughtful alternatives to incarceration, wherever public safety can be maintained; and that’s a really great place to start.”
Committee Reports Its Work
The Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) formed in 2019, and was scheduled to begin work around the time the Covid-19 pandemic hit the county. The SAC, informed by the work of the IPRTF, was tasked with creating a community-needs assessment to provide information for future ballot measures that would fund changes to the jail and justice system.
The committee did not write a ballot measure, but proposed recommendations to meet identified needs. The SAC needs assessment identifies possible sources of funding by type (4) for the recommendations proposed in the report.
Delayed by two years, the committee — made up of 38 voting members from local government, Tribal Nations, criminal legal system agencies, community-based service providers and people with lived experience in the criminal legal system — met for the first time in January 2021.
The SAC met regularly for a year, holding discussions among committee members and collecting data through an online public survey, listening sessions, informal interviews and by applying a Racial Equity Analysis toolkit.
The committee agreed on a list of seven shared values as well as a number of goals for criminal justice systems, services and facilities in the county.
It also drafted this vision statement:
• “Whatcom County will uphold and promote community safety, health, and justice. To accomplish this, we will reduce crime and reduce incarceration through early interventions and long-term investments in people and programs that support prevention, restoration and accountability in the community and within the criminal legal system.”
Buchanan said the committee worked toward a minimum of 80 percent consensus on agenda items, and saw high levels of participation.
Inadequate and Underfunded
In the priority needs and recommendations for criminal justice systems section, committee members identified inadequate and underfunded behavioral health and substance-use disorder treatment programs. Additionally, to address racial inequities within the system, the SAC recommended increased data on, and more involvement from, BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) community members with lived experience in the system.
The SAC prioritized behavioral and physical health, as well as social services, when making services recommendations. The report suggests long-term treatment programs rather than short-term intervention, including the cultivation of housing, educational and vocational opportunities.
For facility needs and recommendations, the committee considered the size, design and location of a new jail. Overcrowding, and a need for services in the current facility, led to suggestions for increased indoor and outdoor multipurpose spaces with dedicated space to house resources and services.
Current jail staff contend with limited visibility within the jail as well as safety concerns. The committee recommended effective, open designs to reduce these challenges. They suggested a building design with a limited number of stories to reduce the need for elevators. Such a building would require a large site, likely making it difficult to replace the downtown site of the current jail.
The county has three locations available for a new jail: the Civic Center complex downtown, site of the current jail; the Irongate District near the Work Center; and the county-owned property located on LaBounty Drive in Ferndale.
Narrowing down the location, however, proves to be a challenge. Many members preferred the site of the current jail for its proximity to legal and community services, but the property downtown is small and limited. The Irongate site provides a number of pros and cons. The LaBounty location is by far the largest site, and it sits empty. The approximately six and a half miles from downtown Bellingham, however, creates many concerns about transportation feasibility and operational costs. There are no cost estimates for each site at this time.
The SAC did not propose one location or design for the new jail, but applied their values to the three available county locations and made facility considerations to the best of their ability.
The Bellingham City Council amended some changes, and approved the SAC’s final Public Health, Safety and Justice Facility Needs Assessment Report (1) at their meeting on Feb. 13. The Whatcom County Council recommended approval of the report at their meeting on Feb. 21. Next, the county will create an implementation plan to propose a cost estimate and jail site.
Improving Countywide Preventative Services
Following the recommended approval of the SAC’s needs assessment, the report moved into the implementation phase. Buchanan said his goal is to propose an initiative to the council in June, for consideration to be put on the ballot this November.
Funding for a new jail facility is largely dependent on new laws that would advise behavioral health systems, Buchanan said. He said the county requested capital to begin planning a “sobering center,” a space where people under the influence could go rather than being held in jail. Depending on the resources available, different options may be possible.
Although the future of a new Whatcom County jail is yet to be determined, many efforts have been made to reduce incarceration rates and offer health and community services as alternatives to incarceration.
The county replaced the Triage Center, the previous crisis stabilization center in the Irongate District, with the Anne Deacon Center for Hope, in 2021. The new, larger center offers resources for mental health support and substance use withdrawal management, and increased the capacity for service from 13 beds to 32.
A number of community programs and services exist in Whatcom County. The Community Paramedic Program, Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE), Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (MCOT), and Alternative Response Team (ART) programs offer various services and resources alternative to law enforcement systems. The Whatcom County Health Department and the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office are partnering on the Co-Responder Pilot Program coming early this year.
Government reports reference many abbreviations and acronyms. Here is a guide to the ones used in this article.
ART: Alternative Response Team
BIPOC: Black, Indigenous and People of Color
GRACE: Ground-Level Response and Coordinated Engagement Program
IPRTF: Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force
LEAD: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program
MCOT: Mobile Crisis Outreach Team
SAC: Stakeholder Advisory Committee
Emma Bjornsrud (they/she) graduated from Western Washington University in December with a degree in environmental journalism. Emma is spending time in Bellingham working and reporting. You can email them at emmab.journalism@ gmail.com.