Posted by: sweeneyblog | November 18, 2013

County Releases EIS, Prepares to Purchase Jail Site

In all the flurry over curious Port results, Doug Ericksen for Congress and my all-male Odds and Ends last week, the recent activity on the jail almost went unnoticed. However, the county has taken two very big steps toward building a new jail in the last couple of weeks, and I wanted to give you an update.

The Jail Planners and Jack Louws

The Jail Planners and Jack Louws

First, the Environmental Impact Statement has finally been completed. After receiving 47 comments from citizens, businesses and public agencies, they have finished the EIS. Good news, there are not any new significant concerns with the land, it is large enough, in a location with minimal impacts to the surrounding neighbors and with easy I-5 access.

The bad news is how the jail consultants responded to citizen feedback. I was at the hearing where citizen after citizen poured their heart out, telling personal stories and advocating for increased mental health services as part of the package to reduce incarceration needs. This was their exact response, found on page 7 of the Final EIS:

Several citizens advocated for strengthened mental health programs or mental triage facilities as an alternative or preventative to incarceration. While it is true that a significant portion of offenders in the jail have mental health issues, they are incarcerated because they have violated a state or local law. Law enforcement has  little if any latitude in those situations.

Whatcom County supports and encourages the diversion of appropriate mentally ill offenders into the mental health and community support systems. It must plan, however, for what appears to be actual need for jail capacity. It cannot responsibly ignore the factual information which indicates that mentally ill offenders will exist into the future and that sufficient space needs to be provided to house them in a humane manner.

It would be difficult for me to craft a more tone deaf response. In a memorandum included at the end, Whatcom County jail administrator, Wendy Jones, acknowledges that more than $17 million has been cut from community health services statewide but says, “We cannot responsibly ignore the factual information which indicates that mentally ill offenders will be with us now and into the future, and sufficient space needs to be provided to house them in a humane manner.”

Cynicism from the County

Cynicism from the County

It seems there is a profound level of cynicism on the part of the county here. It seems that their attitude is, “Boy, its a shame that mental health services are chronically underfunded, but oh well, they don’t really help anyway.” I would hope that the County Council takes a more forward looking perspective and starts seriously funding mental health in our community.

The other frustrating aspect of the EIS is the contortions the document goes through over the number of jail beds. The document was written to assess a jail of 660 beds, but throughout the material, it reasserts that the first phase will only be for 521 beds. The rationale for this is that if and when we need to expand to 660 beds, a new EIS will not be required.

However, there is no timeline for when Phase Two will be implemented and I worry about mission creep: “If it is going to be 660 beds eventually, we might as well put up the structures while we have the guys out here, that way, we don’t have to hire again.” With changing laws, incarceration rates dropping and, hopefully, increased support for mental health services, we might not need 660 beds for another 50-60 years. I hope everyone involved the process considers the question, “Why spend the money now, when things are tight?”

Location of the proposed Jail

Location of the proposed Jail

Speaking of money, the county moved the money in preparation for purchasing the LaBounty site. With the deal for the land expiring at the end of the year, the County Council has scheduled a discussion on the subject for the regular council meeting on Nov. 26th, with a final vote on the purchase December 10th. The property will cost around $6.6 million dollars, a small part of the proposed $109 million that will be spent on this facility.

Despite some concerns about ignoring downtown Bellingham as a location, the County Council made the decision, last December, to locate the jail in the county. This site has been vetted with multiple studies and has been under consideration for almost two years. Considering where we are now and where we need to be, I have no problem with purchasing the property. It is a necessary step forward.

However, just because we are purchasing the property does not mean we have finalized the design and implementation of the jail. It is just the first step and there will be several more decision points along the way. At every step, I will advocate for increased funding for mental health services, drug and juvenile court and alternatives to punitive bail to ensure that we reduce the need for such a large facility. Join me at the County Council meeting November 26th in urging the council to fund mental health services as part of a package when building this new jail.



  1. First, Riley, sorry for blasting you last week. I think I was a little more stressed about facing Bob “the Devil” Watters than I was acknowledging. But I also do feel Wendy doesn’t get just due for the amount of watch dogging and reporting she does. The issues she follows are crazy complex, and she errs on the side of telling everything she knows in the hopes we’ll use the information to effect change. Even when I know I can’t process it and act on it because I’m focused on other things, I’m so grateful she does what she does.

  2. Is the $109 million price tag a foregone conclusion? Not necessarily, if one council member and the executive are true to their words. Sam Crawford last week said “we’re going to have to at some point reconcile the ideal $110 million with what we can afford.” Later at that Tuesday meeting, he said, “The feedback that we’re getting is pretty unanimous from either informed folks or something less than informed folks that that price tag is going to be a little much … for this community to handle.” Then Louws acknowledged this: “As a council and an administration and a community, we will need to find a balance between what we can afford and what we need.”

    • You are quite right, it is not a foregone conclusion. I’m just using that number because that’s what we have on paper right now. I hope they reduce the costs somewhat.

      • How about not spending the money at all on this white elephant?

  3. Second, thank you for your analysis of the jail situation, another one that most of us don’t fully understand and depend on others to review and summarize for us. I would say this, though. I don’t think I agree with the conclusion that the response to the issue of the mentally ill is necessarily callous. The inadequacy of funding for community support for the mentally ill has been with us for a long time. We’re all guilty of not making it a priority and advocating to change the fact that the safety nets that should be there aren’t, so it is left to the penal system to respond when situations escalate to the point of laws being broken and people being at risk of harm. This isn’t a failure of jail planning, but of community resource planning. I don’t think I disagree that as of this moment, those faced with addressing future penal needs must work from the reality as it currently exists. I hope that this will force us to dialogue more as a community about our priorities, and if community mental health were pushed into the public consciousness, that would be a good thing. I would like to be a part of that conversation.

  4. Riley – sorry to read that you have drunk the koolaid and support the moving of the county lockup out to the county. Your reasoning that the County has sunk costs in selecting and vetting the new site is a classic example of the sunk cost fallacy. Effectively, you are advocating spending good money after all the bad money already spent.

    Here’s the main problem, IMHO – incarceration costs in Whatcom County have already increased at more than double the rate of inflation since 1998. What these spendthrifts are proposing is to borrow over $100 million and guarantee that incarceration costs will continue to spiral out of control. WHy? Crime rates are at the lowest in over 20 years. County services are being cut right and left. The net effect will be that incarceration costs will grow as a proportion of County spending for no good objective reason, making it even more difficult for we poor taxpayers and for any County departments not related to the jail.

    The County still has to go to the polls for authority to borrow the money and I for one will fight it tooth and nail. I thought that with a County exec. who has run his own business and is from good frugal stock this grandiose empire-building white elephant would bite the dust but he’s apparently drunk the koolaid also. I just shake my head at the contempt for any concept of fiscal responsibility or even common sense.

    Jail is a necessary evil, not a growth industry. The approach should be how are we going to reduce the cost of incarceration, not how are we going to increase it ad infinitum. This is what happens when governments are controlled by the people employed by them rather than by the people who pay for them. Orgies of spending, and more jobs for the boys.

    • I’m not convinced that putting the jail outside Bellingham is the best course of action, I’m just acknowledging that we’ve moved past that decision point and I’m looking forward to how to make the best choices moving forward.

      • RIley – It’s not factually true that “we have moved past this decision point”, as the taxpayers of this County have not approved ANY borrowing to pay for a new jail. It is true that some vested interests have advanced the process in absence of any mandate or even evaluation of lower-cost options such as renovating the existing jail building. We cannot allow them to sleepwalk us into loading the County with the same useless spending that has almost bankrupted Pierce County, for example. WHy not rent their empty jail space and save the whole waste of a project?

      • This is not about paying for the new jail. The County Council decided a year ago that the jail will be out in the County. They already have the cash to purchase the property. It has been vetted for environmental concerns. While I urge everyone to let the council know your point of view, I think the chances of them not buying the property are slim to none. However, there is still much to be decided about the size and scope of the jail, the facilities that will or will not be built and the role of social services in our law and justice system. Those have yet to be determined.

      • They can decide what they like, Riley – but without money, they can’t do a darn thing. They can buy the land without borrowing authority, but not one shovel will go in the ground until a vote by the people.

        The County Council also decided to defy State planning law. DO you think just because they did this we should continue to do so? They decided to allow industrial slaughterhouses on any ag land in the County. DO you think we are stuck with this decision?

        County Council that approved this white elephant has significantly changed in composition. They can still undo the whole thing, and should before they find themselves unable to get authority to borrow the money.

  5. Hard to know where to begin, but the first big ‘wow’ in the above discussion is this notion that they’re moving the jail to the “County”—are you kidding? They are moving the jail to FERNDALE…a small city outside of Bellingham.. It is not some pasture covered in cow manure…we are a bedroom community of nearly 12,000 men, women, and children. As a long-time homeowner in Ferndale, I would have less reaction to the whole thing were it in fact the “County” they wanted—but no, it’s Ferndale…Let’s get that straight.

    I read above, “I don’t think I disagree that as of this moment, those faced with addressing future penal needs must work from the reality as it currently exists….” Which ‘reality’ would you have them work from (pardon the preposition)? Hard as it is for some to accept, and no matter our perception, there is one reality here and now, and it ain’t good, and what the ‘lock ’em up’ folks want to do isn’t gonna make it better. Joy Gilfilin’s restorative-justice work is not something she dreamed up, and my research and study of this issue sustains her conclusions as to the folly of the present approach. As a practical matter, (and a metaphor for the jail proponents ‘work’) she is quick to point out the fact that Wendy Jones signed an oder reducing ‘time-off’ for good behavior from a possible ‘half,’ to ‘one-third,’ making us one of only a few Counties to impose such a rule. Might that not, along w/slashing the public defenders’ budget, and eliminating funding for a drug court, predictably increase our jail population?

    The LaBounty Site?—(again, not in the “County,” but rather a few blocks from Ferndale elementary schools, Youth civic Clubs, Churches, homes, etc., etc.)—it’s a highly over-valued property, at least one third unusable due to the Wetlands Act, and remote from everything required to make a Criminal Justice system work—Bail Bonds (or will they be the ‘new’ downtown Ferndale?), defense attorneys, mental health services, domestic violence counseling/help, addiction treatment services, and so much more—The ‘lock ’em up folks’ answer? Video Trials. Wonderful.

    And, tapering off to the end of my ‘rant,’ is there another proposed 100 million dollar project in the offing for the taxpayers to ponder? I mean, is this not a pretty significant issue in the universe of County issues? And to the notion that it will ‘have to go to the voters,’ I remind everyone who’s forgotten, the Council, using a Councilmatic Bond, can spend $100 mil. dollars with a majority vote of the Council itself. I just watched my own mayor and 5 City Council allies embark on the second-largest spending spree (the Ferndale police dept. among the biggest chunk) in Ferndale history wholly with the votes of 5 people on behalf of 11,900 citizen taxpayers. (My concern over the tendency toward ‘administrative’ government is a whole other thing for which there is not space here.)

    Which raises the question, at least for us Ferndale citizen/taxpayers: With the advent of the Sheriff’s Dept locating along with the new jail in Ferndale (might we be crawling with Sheriff deputies?), and considering the ‘cooperation’ between the Feds at the border and Whatcom County law enforcement,* will the new 19,000 sq ft police palace in Ferndale become irrelevant?—As in, ‘extra’ in the extreme?

    Oh, and the mental health matter? They’ve designated 12 beds, whether or not they build 800, 600, or 511. Really Ms. Jones?

    * Whatcom County Sheriff deputies have been designated “Marshall’s” by the Feds, and as such, our local jail has become a ‘holding’ place for anyone the Feds ‘catch.’

    • I’m just saying that the fight over whether the jail will be in downtown Bellingham or elsewhere was settled last year by the County Council. I’m looking forward rather than refighting what has already been settled.

      • easy to do (“look forward”) Riley when it’s not in your backyard…the location is critical on several levels, but the fact that 12000 people’s ‘neighborhood’ is to absorb this thing is, or should be a huge concern for anyone promoting local control of local destinies…the chicanery that had them somehow magically eliminate 13 possible sites is a metaphor for the whole thing, and is directly related to stopping this beast…but then, back to my original point, it’s not gonna be in your backyard…so yeah Riley, lets’ look ‘forward’…What the hell, why not look forward, after all, it’s just Ferndale…the Sheriff doesn’t live here, you don’t, Wendy Jones doesn’t, Linville doesn’t, the Executive doesn’t…but there’s no ‘there’ there, right?

      • That’s a fair point – it is not my back yard and it is easier to concede that fight when I don’t have to see it every day. I should note that Carl Weimer lives in Ferndale and he will be voting on this proposal.

  6. The jail consultants are exhibiting that principle of “if your only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail”. They were dumbfounded by people talking about community support services for mentally ill persons, because, if a person has already committed a crime and are a danger to the public, they may need to be locked up. That is a logic if you are in the evaluate jails business, and are in a different universe from the PREVENTION of future possible crime events business. Prevention is not a jail consultant’s focus or realm of thought. As for the location (moot or not), the Sherrif complained how awkward and expensive and manpower intensive a vertical (multi-floor) jail is. Well, having to load prisoners back and forth in and out of cars and drive them to court etc. is certainly not simpler than walking them down an elevator and accross a corridor.

  7. Huey, the jail proponents’ magic-bullet that cures all ills (to mix metaphors) is “Video Court”—wherein we reduce the court deliberation—and the defendant[‘s only hope—to some or another Orweillian process. “Big Brother” will now be exclusively on a “telescreen,” supposedly, (and also an Orweillian twist), making ‘justice’ readily and efficiently accessible…

  8. The folks at the multi-billion dollar Correctional Corporation of America (CCA) must be salivating at the thought of this monstrosity eventually being such a cash drain on the county that the CCA will swoop in as savior to take it all off our hands. For a price, of course. Heh! Heh! Put it on your calendar for 10 years after the construction of this “facility” when everyone will be slapping their foreheads while saying, “Doh!” In the meantime you can read this piece from Counterpunch for a vision of the future. There is still time to slam the door shut on this insanity.

  9. The FEIS states, as you report: “While it is true that a significant portion of offenders in the jail have mental health issues, they are incarcerated because they have violated a state or local law. Law enforcement has little if any latitude in those situations.”

    This statement is worth investigating: ‘they are incarcerated because they have violated a state or local law.”

    73% of people in our jail have not been tried or sentenced.

    Here’s some simple math. We have – on average – fewer than 400 people in jail each day. But let’s assume 400 to use a round number. Of those, 108 (27%) have been sentenced and 292 (73%) are in jail for other reasons. The primary reason they sit in jail is because they cannot write a check for bail.

    In New Jersey 40% of the people in jail – on average – are there because they cannot pay a cash bail. In New York it’s 75%.

    If our numbers are similar to New Jersey’s, it means 160 are in jail in Whatcom County because they are too poor to make bail. That means if our judges implement a system that provides a reasonable alternative to cash bail (for those who can’t write a check for $500 or more) we could build a jail of around 361 beds, saving $28.8-million in construction costs alone. Our daily operational costs could drop by $9.8-million each year.

    If our numbers are similar to New York’s, it means that our 73% who are in jail prior to trial and sentencing, can be let go just like defendants able to write a check for $500. Each jail bed costs around $80,000 to build and then $75 a day to operate.

    If our community digs in and finds a solution – an alternative to cash bail – we could have a safe, new jail at a much smaller cost. You might hear that judges will not want to allow alternatives to cash bail because someone might commit a crime. But we are not talking about sentenced criminals being released early. These are people the judge has already determined can be out of jail before their trail. If they can afford the bail.

    • If your numbers are correct, Lisa, (and I think they make sense), why build a new jail at all? Our existing jail is plenty big and could be renovated at a much lower cost than building a white elephant.

      I have evaluated hundreds of capital spending projects in my career, and this one achieves exactly the opposite of capital project evaluation criteria require: it saves no costs, rather it more than doubles them; it requires 100% borrowed money to build; ancillary costs have not been included (such as the costs to transport); sensitivity analysis has not been done (what do costs look like with $10 per gallon gas, e.g.); and there is no authority to proceed as borrowing on this scale needs to go to the people.

      This thing is a boondoggle that must be stopped, IMHO. The feds can print money for their boondoggles, but this thing requires hard money to come from US County taxpayers for forty years. No way.

  10. Riley,

    Read “Examining the Tools in the Toolbox: A Review of Community Supervision of Dangerous Mentally Ill Offenders” published by the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office. I think it will cause you to re-think your “tone deaf” remark.

  11. Kudos to all of you who are speaking truth so thoughtfully and informed about this really wrong, wrong way of going. Defunding mental health triage, lowering numbers of judges and public defenders and losing out on alternative ways to deal with folks who need to work and take care of their children, rather than pay fines or spend their days in our equivalent of the poor house beggars the imagination in 2013. We and our neighbors can’t afford to pour funds that could be used to reduce the number of beds into this deep and endless hole that doesn’t help anyone but the prison industrial system lurking and waiting to be fed. Don’t get sucked in Riley. The county jail in Bellingham can be rebuilt at much lower cost using land the County already owns and uses as sub ground parking lots. I respect and admire the skill of the sheriff, but one look at the map of the proposed complex says much about what the priorities the future will hold for law enforcement creeping everyday toward the border. And PS where are the plans for supporting rentry of people who will be hitch hiking from Ferndale until they get picked up for it? Maybe one of the many new law enforcement vehicles that will be crowding I-5 can drop them off to start over where they began.

  12. […] has been one of the priorities of the Right Size Jail coalition and a key component to reducing the burden on our jail system. Mental health court provides another […]

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