A response to Mayor Kelli Linville's Letter regarding the Jail Tax
November 6, 2017
Dear Mayor Linville,
You and a few other elected representatives recently wrote a letter to voters regarding a major issue on this year’s ballot – the jail. I would like to respond to a few of the ideas you’ve shared, offer another perspective, and elaborate on some of the points you make to help our community members understand the complexities of this vote.
You mention there are “many significant changes” in this year’s ballot measure for the jail tax in comparison to what voters rejected in 2015. Based on my research, here is what I understand is actually different:
- The City of Bellingham has negotiated a lower share of the construction cost – in 2015, Bellingham was responsible for 21% of the construction and this has been negotiated down to 16%.
- In 2015 the proposed jail had 521 beds, and this year there are 440 beds proposed, plus as you note, an additional 34 beds dedicated to Medical and Behavioral Health needs.
- This tax would provide “excess revenue” to the Cities – up to $1.15 million annually for Bellingham, and we are being told that this could support alternatives to incarceration. (When you dig into the details, you can see that this excess revenue could also be easily cancelled out by bed-day rates that Bellingham has to pay the County for holding misdemeanants.)
There are also some significant things about this plan that haven’t changed:
- It’s still over $200 million dollars invested in a building, making it Whatcom County’s largest capital investment ever.
- It is still one of the most expensive jails ever proposed – at $250,000 per bed. In comparison, Skagit’s jail was built for $120,000 per bed. Lynden Mayor Scott Korthuis admitted that this is because the jail is built in a way that it could be easily expanded.
- It’s still in Ferndale, away from the court system. This matters because of the inefficiencies it creates for our police force and deputies, bringing inmates back and forth between Ferndale and downtown Bellingham for court dates.
- The plan still includes remodeling the downtown jail, building the new jail, demolishing the downtown jail, and then building a sally port… a plan that doesn’t seem logical.
- The proposed tax is still 2/10ths of 1 percent of our public safety sales tax, making our sales tax the same as Bellevue’s and depleting our ability to use this method of tax for any other public safety need for the next 30 years. (You might ask why the comparison to Bellevue matters. The median household income in Bellevue is $92,524 and the unemployment rate is 3.9%. In Bellingham, the median household income is $42,440 and the unemployment rate is 6%. Comparing the two cities, does Bellingham have the purchasing power to bear the same sales tax rate as Bellevue? Do we have the same number of people passing through going shopping? On a matter of equity and affordability, I believe these are concerns worth considering.)
You say that this jail is about humanitarian choices and the options are either we fund a criminal justice system that we want OR we make the situation worse by not buying a new jail. I don’t understand how funding the construction of a jail translates into funding a criminal justice system that we want. The jail is only one piece of the entire system – an important piece, yes, but not the only piece. The other important pieces of the system that I don’t see funding allocated or plans for reform in this proposal are:
- The court system - supports for the system such as reminder calls and social workers.
- Bail reform/Pre-trial risk assessments.
- Alternative courts such as Drug Court and Veterans Court.
- Programming that supports re-entry and vocational training.
- Mental health treatment, OUTSIDE of the jail.
- Treatment for addiction.
- Community supervision programs – such as Electric Home Monitoring.
- Sobering centers for DUI’s.
- Prevention efforts such as housing, early learning, and investments in the social safety net of the community, to keep people from getting to a place where they’re committing crimes.
I think it’s important to note that most of the people in our jail (60%) are sitting there pre-trial, meaning they haven’t been convicted of a crime yet and they are held in jail because they can’t afford bail. When the types of crimes are analyzed, we learn that about 60% of our inmates are locked up due to misdemeanor charges or non-violent offenses, and 3 out of 5 of the top felony arrests are drug related. There is so much evidence out there that tells us jail is not the one-size-fits-all solution and for many of these individuals, spending time in jail is going to further harm them, not rehabilitate them.
When we have alternatives like Electric Home Monitoring and community supervision that save tax-payer dollars (it costs $16/day to have someone on Electric Home Monitoring vs. $108/day to keep them in the jail), AND lead to better outcomes (98% appearance in court rate, better access to legal counsel and other community services, ability to keep job, housing, family…), the investment should be in expanding these kinds of alternatives, rather than in expanding the jail.
You mention in your letter that without this new jail we will have nowhere to bring our misdemeanants. We still have the downtown jail AND we have the work center on Division Street. We can do repairs on the downtown jail that the engineering firm Design2Last said could give us up to 20 more useful years in that facility. That’s a long time to see what reforms work and gives our community an opportunity to make long term investments in incarceration prevention efforts, which will ultimately inform our decision on how big our jail actually needs to be, where it needs to be, and what the design of it needs to be.
You state that without a new facility, we will be “woefully out of options.” I attended the Vera Institute Report Out to the Incarceration Prevention Taskforce and learned about a very LONG list of options for Whatcom County and for the City of Bellingham. We’ve barely even started making a dent on the list of opportunities. Things I mentioned above, such as Sobering Centers, expanding Electric Home Monitoring, investing in programs like GRACE (Ground Response and Coordinated Engagement, our local version of LEAD – Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), and helping the courts increase their through-put of case processing, to name a few. There are plenty of ways to create options that don’t equal building a jail.
You also say that your goals for a new jail are to reduce incarceration. This statement confuses me. I’m not sure how the goals of building a new jail could possibly be reducing incarceration. Building a new jail means the goals and incentives will be to fill the new jail. That is how the economics of a jail work. You get paid when someone’s locked up, not when it’s empty. If the goal is really to reduce incarceration, building a new jail is the wrong investment.
Your letter notes that this tax is a good start at getting us the alternatives we are asking for. But as the excess revenue math problem illustrates above, funding for alternatives is not guaranteed with this tax. What happens when we have another recession and the sales revenue dips below what’s been forecasted? The agreement between the County and the City gives a cap for what can be invested in alternatives, but only IF there is money to do so. There is no guaranteed minimum investment.
You explain how building a new jail will address some concerns – protecting victims being the first one. Victims’ voices are so important in the criminal justice system. And we definitely need (and have) a jail for people who are dangerous to the community and who have committed violent crimes.
In terms of what victims of crime want to see happen to the offender, studies show that if you ask crime victims to choose between prison and nothing, they choose prison. But people really want more choices. If you ask victims whether they want prison or alternatives like mental health treatment, drug programs, and education, they overwhelmingly choose the latter. Knowing the backstory of a crime and why it was committed and then matching resources and methods to that individual ultimately serves to better protect society in the long run, as we can actually rehabilitate rather than incarcerate, condemn, and watch the statistics of recidivism play out.
You say the jail will address behavioral and mental health needs in our community. We’ve learned that jail can be the absolute WORST place for mental health treatment, and that many people are better served outside of the jail in community based settings. The average length of stay for an inmate in our jail is two weeks or less. The most you can do in that time is stabilize someone – to effectively treat them is a much longer journey. We must remember the difference between prisons and jails in this regard. Jails are not made for long-term stays and should not be resourced for that purpose either. Your letter did not mention that our County is building a Triage facility, one that will have 36 beds for people who need to detox or who are in mental health crisis, providing an alternative to taking people to the jail. Making the jail the access point for mental health treatment is a costly investment; one that will not provide the return our community is looking for.
You mention that this plan addresses our need for Jail Alternatives, with an overall commitment of $30 million dollars, which pencils out to about $1 million dollars per year for the life of this tax. This is a commitment in the right direction, but it is presented to us as a false choice. Why is the only way our community gets reform and alternatives through building a new jail? Let’s decouple this investment and start with the prevention and alternatives first, give them enough time to see if and how they work, and then look at building a new jail.
The last area you say this tax will help us with is Oversight – that this ballot measure creates an advisory board that will have oversight of jail management. Why not do this anyway? We don’t need a tax to create this board. The disrepairs that have been allowed in the jail lead me to believe that increased community participation and transparency into jail operations is essential. It is only through default that the Sheriff oversees the jail. Our community could create a Department of Corrections and have the jail run by someone whose skill set is focused on rehabilitation and jail management. Many other counties in Washington state have done this – Walla Walla, Chelan, King County, and Spokane to name a few. They have all reported better retention of Corrections Deputies and better management and focus on jail operations. We don’t need to pass this tax to implement an Oversight board, and it should be done whether we pass this tax or not.
Regarding the assertion that the current facility is a risk to staff and inmates and that there is no room for programming, voters should know that the Design2Last firm did an assessment on the jail and they gave us a rating of 3.2 (on a scale of 1-5), putting us squarely in the “fair” condition range. We’ve all heard people say the jail is inhumane - and I’ve toured both the Whatcom County jail and the new Skagit Jail. Both times I walked out feeling a little sick to my stomach. I think that for most people, no matter what jail you tour, your reaction will be that it is inhumane because humans don’t react to cages well.
In terms of the lack of space, I would love to see us think creatively. Why couldn’t we move the Sheriff’s offices out of the basement of the jail and create space instead for programming? Why couldn’t we walk the inmates next door to the courthouse and use a conference room to do counseling? There are possibilities that haven’t been explored thoroughly before we resort to building a new jail.
You close your letter by saying that if we want to see the criminal justice system change for the better in Whatcom County, you urge us to vote yes.
The only time we’ve seen significant investment in making the criminal justice system better was after we said no in 2015. If we say yes now, we will be re-directing the government’s attention to building a new jail, and then filling that jail to make the money make sense. There will be no need for meaningful reform because we won’t have the same space constraints we have now. It is because we said no that we’ve started to invest in alternatives such as the Triage Center, Electric Home Monitoring, Pre-Trial Risk Assessments, and other programs that help divert people away from the jail. None of these things would be happening if we had said yes in 2015. We should continue our momentum on making true reform, not on building a new jail.
I have the utmost respect for you Mayor Kelli, and for any elected official who is willing to try and tackle the big problems such as this. I’ve been thinking about the definition of insanity though – trying to do the same thing over and over and expecting different results. I respect that when the Port voted no on the homeless shelter, you didn’t decide to just wait two years, persuade the politicians with dollars, and then say “how about now?”– You instead put together a new table with diverse voices to come up with a different, better solution. We’ve built a great foundation for that work in the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Taskforce, and I believe we weren’t ready yet to come back to the voters with a “how about now?” plan.
My vision for our community is one in which the jail is not the safety net, and instead there are ample resources for individuals who need them long before they are in a place where the jail is the only option. However the vote goes, I look forward to working with you and others on reducing incarceration, creating meaningful reforms, and investing in programs and services that we know work to make our community a better, safer place.
With respect and gratitude,