Overcrowded jail leads to early releases
Last month, a Blaine police officer stopped a driver on Peace Portal Drive who had been reportedly driving recklessly. The driver�s left leg hung out the window, he failed to slow down or stop at a stop sign at a controlled intersection and his vehicle (which contained his children) just missed a serious collision by inches. The officer discovered the driver was impaired, driving with a suspended driver�s license, in possession of used drug paraphernalia, had no insurance, no registration and two warrants for his arrest. The driver, 28-year-old Joseph L. Meade of 2490 Bell Road, was arrested and released.
This kind of situation is becoming increasingly common across the county, as the county jail is experiencing overcrowding issues like never before, and in the words of county sheriff Bill Elfo �becoming a pressing issue.� Just last week, the county jail in Bellingham topped out at 258�the second time this 138-bed facility has had over 250 inmates.
�The jail�s been on booking restrictions for 10 years,� Elfo said, noting misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors were not being booked into the jail. �Since then, the population has increased in the county, and restrictions have become more restrictive.�
Those restrictions, he said, have come to include individuals on drunk driving and assault charges Elfo said they�re given citations and then fail to appear in court, thus a warrant goes out for their arrest. But the criminals are fully aware of the booking restrictions and know that often they won�t make it to jail, or if they do, they�ll be released early.
�They (criminals) already know about the booking restrictions. They even tell the officer that, � Elfo said.
About 27 people were booked into jail over the last week and later released, some of them were involved in domestic violence and animal cruelty. Currently, he said, the jail is now holding the worst of the worst, and added �we really don�t have too much to choose from.�
�We have been, for a long time, releasing prisoners,� Elfo said, noting the recent release of an individual with 13 drunk driving and suspension charges. �It�s cause for outrage for us. We�re releasing people who shouldn�t be released.�
According to Blaine police chief Mike Haslip, 78 people in the Blaine city limits could have and should have been booked into Whatcom County Jail, but were not because of jail overcrowding. The police force logged every incident in the month of March to audit this effect.
Haslip said about 70 percent of those individuals were from Blaine or Whatcom County.
�This affects the public�s safety,� Haslip said. �This has been a problem for years and years. And it has gotten worse and worse.�
These criminals, Haslip said, are let go because there are no other local facilities to place them in. �They are a danger to everyone including themselves,� he said. �They are back on the road while the officer is still typing the report.�
This overcrowding also affects the people who are trying to serve short jail times. Haslip said some people are waiting for months to serve a day or two of time. �They�re trying to serve to fulfill their obligations, but this impacts every aspect.�
The county jail, erected in 1983, was built to hold 138 inmates, but lately that number has been 250. Since the beginning of the month, the jail has seen an average of 245 to 250 inmates, compared to the 230 and 238 it recorded from 1999 to 2002.
The office, Elfo said, is working cooperatively with the county to find a quick-fix mandate including a temporary warehouse building in Bellingham that would house minimum-offense individuals. As for the long-term plan, it could take three to four years for the process of construction and funding to go through for the jail, he said.
The idea of tenting the inmates has also been discussed, however Elfo said the county�s zoning laws do not allow that.
�We need to have something up and running by January.� he said.
There are 48 corrections officers, including those transporting prisoners and those working with the county�s alternative programs, where 100 people are taken out to pick up garbage and perform community service.
As for personnel requests, Elfo said the sheriff�s office will be seeking more in the upcoming year. �We�re going to ask for an additional five people in corrections, and an additional three deputies in law enforcement,� he said.
The county, he said, is way under the state and national mandates. There are 171 full-time personnel with the office, including 72 deputies.
Not only is there not enough personnel, but the jail is also falling apart. �The facilities are really in sad shape,� Elfo said of the jail. �It�s a high maintenance building. It�s not really designed to keep staffing at a minimum.�
The company that created the mechanics has since gone out of business, so finding a fix to some of the problems has been difficult. �We�ve been reduced to buying parts on Ebay,� Elfo said.
Methamphetamine and theft are becoming two big problems in the county, Elfo said.
�The methamphetamine problem is really killing us,� he said, noting that by July 31, there had been 31 lab sites discovered. �The majority of this is coming up from Pierce County. We�re able to respond to about eight percent of the cases.�
The sheriff�s office, he said, is largely focusing on the meth problem, and are less concerned with the marijuana coming from across the border, as the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection (BCBP) is working on that issue.
To combat this problem, Elfo is seeking a civilian employee to help with fielding these cases, and another person to be on the road responding to complaints and discouraging use.
The other big problem is theft.
�We have a den of thieves in the east part of the county, that commit crimes all over Whatcom County and then go back there.�
He said they number in about 30 to 40 people, and because the area is so remote, they are getting away with it. He said a gang of five are now serving state time.
�We have one deputy all the way from the Guide Meridian to the Baker ski resort,� Elfo said, adding the remoteness of the region affects time. �We would like to have a resident deputy live there, who is familiar with the land and the people. We need to start taking care of the citizens better.� �We�ve seen an overall rise in all calls, including domestic violence,� Elfo said. �There has been a seven percent increase in the call load.�
Elfo said a study done four years ago indicated the county needed an additional 28 deputies to properly serve the communities. But only eight were added.
�I would project we�re way behind in staffing,� he said. �The county is continually seeing an increase in population.�