WHY DOES WHATCOM COUNTY NEED A NEW JAIL?

As Whatcom County moves forward with plans to replace its failing jail, it is important to share the reasons a new facility is desperately needed, and why costly repairs to the current jail cannot be delayed.

In 2003, the jail operated at double-capacity and had long-standing restrictions that prevented booking suspects for crimes such as DUI, theft, and assault.  Instead of being booked, offenders were issued tickets directing them to court and were sent on their way.  When they failed to appear in court, as they often did, judges issued arrest warrants.  Because of the lack of jail space, these warrants could not be served and a cycle of simply re-issuing an un-servable warrant would repeat. It got the point that offenders openly taunted police about their inability to take action.

In 2003,  I requested The National Institute of Corrections review our jail facility and operations.  This resulted in a Justice Department report identifying significant structural, capacity, systems and staffing problems.  Among other things, the report concluded: “[I]f there were a serious fire in the Whatcom County Jail, there is a high probability of many fatalities.” The report further found that the continued use of booking restrictions for DUI related offenses endangered human life, inhibited the ability of the justice system to hold offenders accountable, and created potential liability for the County.

In 2004, voters approved a sales tax to fund the construction and operation of the interim jail work center and the construction of a new jail.  The interim facility opened in late 2006 and booking restrictions were lifted.  Agreements to subsidize city jail costs and a decline in revenues to the County general fund resulted in a significant portion of these tax revenues being diverted to current operations and insufficient capital to complete the full project.

As the replacement of the jail did not proceed according to plan, it became critical to address failing infrastructure issues in the existing facility.  The main jail has experienced repeated failures in its electronic control and fire suppression systems. Last year, a contractor performing emergency repairs determined that defects in the jail electronic control system presented an “extreme safety hazard” and indicated that “from a current safety standards perspective, the system will not pass an electrical inspection.”  A subsequent emergency drill demonstrated that a serious fire in the jail will result in the loss of staff, visitors and inmates.

A number of factors affect jail population, including the tendency of the Legislature to transfer incarceration costs from the state corrections system to counties.  Offenses that formerly resulted in prison sentences now call for county jail sentences. Other legislation created longer jail sentences and mandated bookings into county jails, but did not provide funding. Complicating this are state policies eliminating supervision and services for those leaving prison, and reductions in funding for behavioral health issues.  This past year, our main jail population reached an all-time high, while the interim jail work center remained full.

Jails are costly to build and operate.  The County must incorporate design and technology features that will minimize operational costs.   The jail needs to be “right-sized” to meet current and near-term needs, but accommodate expansion should circumstances dictate. A horizontally designed jail will efficiently accommodate security needs and be less staff-intensive to operate.  We also need to continue pursuing more effective and efficient behavioral health, alternative corrections and recidivism reduction programs.

The County Council recently adopted a resolution to assist them in making important jail decisions that calls for the creation of a Jail Planning Task Force that has been tasked to make recommendations as to the size and location of the new jail as well as programs that can be implemented to reduce costly jail populations.  To assist the Task Force with their work, I applied for and was awarded a grant from the United States Department of Justice’s National Institute of Corrections (NIC).  Staff from the NIC will be coming on site to assess jail population trends and and policies from a system-wide perspective and refine recommendations as to current needs and actions that can be taken throughout the criminal justice and mental health systems to reduce future needs.

As your Sheriff,  my staff and I will continue to work collaboratively with the community and officials to assist the County in identifying and adopting a reasonable, prudent and fiscally responsible plan to address this compelling public need.

Sincerely,

Bill Elfo, Sheriff

Gang Enforcement and Prevention

The presence of criminal gangs has devastated other Washington communities.  As this problem emerged in Whatcom County, I proactively initiated a multi-law enforcement agency gang-working group and directed the Sheriff’s Criminal Interdiction Team to focus on gang activity.  These efforts lead to the arrest of gang members and leadership.

Since preventing our youth from engaging in gang activity is key to this problem, I have met with our local School Superintendents on this issue and have a Deputy with expertise make presentations to school staff on gang identification and prevention.  This cooperation between school officials and law enforcement is critical for early intervention. I also serve on the Corporate Board of the Boys and Girls Club, which has been instrumental in preventing gang affiliation at the local level.

Technology

Over the past several years, incremental but significant improvements were made to increase information to officers on the street.  Each Deputy’s vehicle is now equipped with a computer that can access county data banks.  A daily bulletin with crime information is produced and electronically distributed to every officer in the Whatcom County. Information is better shared among law enforcement agencies and access to a pawnshop database has lead to the recovery of much stolen property.  Citizens may now report minor crimes through “on-line” reporting and deputies will have more time to spend on crime prevention and investigations.

 Nonetheless, our state of technology makes “real-time” information sharing cumbersome and/or time consuming and impedes both solving crimes, crime prevention as well as results in redundancies.  Simple solutions do not exist. The County’s 1980 technology infrastructure will not support a modern records management system. 

 Last year, I received a grant from the Justice Department for experts to review our systems and make recommendations for the acquisition of a modern Records Management System (RMS) that will speed the availability of crime information, eliminate redundancies and bring efficiencies to the entire criminal justice system. 

 The firm that was retained to perform the evaluation is reviewing the infrastructure improvements needed to support such a system and present cost-effective alternative options.  A team of community-based volunteers with expertise in information technology has assisted the Sheriff’s Office in working with the firm, analyzing existing systems and identifying options.

  A modern RMS can provide crime information in a timely and more affordable manner.  The report will serve as the foundation for completing the final phase of the technology program and present affordable options.