Saturday, October 21, 2017

Fixing the existing jail is not feasible!

One claim made by many is that the County ought to just repair the existing jail and continue to use it instead of spending so much money to build a new jail. That type of statement has been oft repeated, and seems to have started with an article in Northwest Citizen by Juliette Daniels.

First off, Juliette Daniels is a lawyer, and as a lawyer she is very good at advocating for the position she is being paid to advocate for. Her articles in NW Citizen are advocacy pieces meant to get people to vote against the jail, not educational pieces meant to help inform the public about both sides of the issue. She chooses pieces of reports very carefully to tell her side of the story. For instance she says this about the County study of the existing jail:

"While the Executive Summary of the Engineering Report states that a new jail is needed, that summary statement is unsupported by any details that follow in the report. The Engineering report estimates that it would cost $32.4 million to repair and use the two jails that we already have for the next 20 years." 

Her statement is not accurate. The $32.4 million figure is not correct, and that figure was not an estimate of what it would cost to create a humane jail layout with treatment cells and meeting facilities. That estimate was only to correct the serious health and human safety issues. The consultants did not give an estimate to actually remodel the building to be a code compliant and humane facility. To do the needed total remodel to create a jail with the humane attributes that nearly everyone says we should provide the study says this (page 79):

"This would require a complex design, essentially gutting the building and starting over within the same footprint. This would also entail relocating inmates and staff, while construction is underway. Our team does not recommend this option and feels it would still not achieve a better, or code compliant facility. The costs to undertake a major remodel such as this are potentially more than a new jail building in another location. Should the County wish to explore this option further, our team could complete a feasibility study and a cost / benefit analysis."

They do provide support for their statement unlike what Ms Daniels claims. Read the Operational Assessment piece that outlines a good deal of this, which can be found with the whole report at:

So yes we could spend $30-40 million to correct the current code deficiencies and address other health and safety concerns, but after spending that money we would still not have a jail that meets the needs that every group that has looked at the jail wants. It would not have adequate medical and detox facilities, and it would not have facilities for meeting space for inmates to meet with loved ones, lawyers, or take classes to prepare them for release. To provide those things would cost tens of millions of additional dollars, and such a remodel would leave us with a jail that could house many fewer inmates. The current jail is bursting at the seams and typically houses around 200 people per night. To add the needed facilities and get it up to code would leave us with many fewer beds - I have heard in the neighborhood of 125. That is not enough beds for the current use, and the current use already requires cities like Bellingham to ship people over to Yakima to house them. Shipping people out of their community is also not a recommended practice because it takes them away from whatever loved ones and support system they may have. Remodeling and continuing to use the existing jail would not save much money, and would ensure that some prisoners need to be sent out of the area. It also probably would mean that cities such as Bellingham would need to build their own separate facilities to handle people, at least temporarily. 

This oft repeated "just fix the current jail" idea does not seem like a responsible solution to me, and spending tens of millions of dollars on such a poor temporary fix also leaves us holding the bag for the ever increasing cost of a real long term solution.

Vote yes for a safe and humane criminal justice system. Vote yes on the Public Safety and Jail Sales and Use Tax

By Kelli Linville, Pinky Vargas, Gene Knutson, and Carl Weimer

Before us again this year is a proposition on funding a new jail facility for Whatcom County. Voters might be asking themselves why they should support this measure after a similar vote came before voters two years ago. Many significant changes have been made, and we are now supporting this new jail proposal for several reasons, and we hope you will support it too.

This jail measure is about humanitarian choices. The choice is whether to fund a criminal justice system that we want or to make the situation worse by not funding a facility to take people who have committed crimes in our communities. While Whatcom County is responsible for all of the felony convictions in the county, cities are responsible for lesser convictions, which is about 22 percent. Without a new facility, cities -- including Bellingham -- will be left woefully short of options and will be forced to either not arrest people who commit crimes or to take people to Yakima or beyond before they have even had a trial.

Our goals for a new jail have been to reduce incarceration and recidivism, to have a safe and functional jail that is the right size for our community, and to have the resources we need to fund alternatives to incarceration. This current jail proposal is a great step towards those goals.

We believe the jail proposal addresses the following concerns:
  • Protecting victims: Our criminal justice system is designed with both punitive and restorative elements, and while we need to provide the option of rehabilitation to those who commit crimes, our community also expects that we will keep violent or dangerous people off our streets. We owe it to the victims of crimes to have a jail that fits our community.
  • Behavioral and mental health: The new jail proposal will add 34 new mental health beds to our community. This resource is badly needed, and this is our opportunity to locally fund this mental health treatment in Whatcom County.
  • Jail alternatives: Both the County and the City of Bellingham have been investing in alternatives to jail for years, and are committed to increasing those investments in incarceration prevention to both treat people more humanely and drive down the costs to our taxpayers. But these incarceration prevention efforts do not negate the need for a new jail facility. Additionally, Whatcom County and Bellingham have agreed to a contractual obligation to use $30 million from this ballot measure to fund jail alternatives. That money for incarceration prevention programs will not be available if this ballot measure fails.
  • Oversight: The County and all the cities in Whatcom County agreed to establish and participate in an advisory board to discuss matters and make recommendations related to jail finances and operations. This means that Bellingham and the smaller cities will have a voice in how the jail is managed, which the cities haven’t had before.

We need a safe jail. The current facility is a risk to both staff and inmates, and the lack of space to separate inmates and provide treatment is inhumane. No amount of remodeling of our existing jail will provide enough space for programs, recreation and opportunities to our incarcerated population. They deserve dignity and opportunities that cannot happen in the existing building. Not only does this proposal help address those needs, it also helps cities fund their own public safety needs, such as police and fire. We join all the city mayors, councils, the sheriff and the county executive in supporting this proposal.

If you want the criminal justice system to change for the better in Whatcom County, we urge you to vote yes on the Public Safety and Jail Sales and Use Tax proposition.