Lawenforcement make their case for a new jail

Published on Thu, Oct 14, 2004
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Law enforcement make their case for a new jail

Voters will soon consider Whatcom County Proposition Number 1 proposing a sales tax of 1/10 of one percent (a dime on $100 taxable purchase) to fund the construction and operation of an adequate jail. The purpose of this editorial is to provide factual information to assist voters make this important decision.

The current jail was designed and staffed to hold 110 inmates, later modified to hold 148 and routinely holds as many as 260 inmates. There is no space or staff available to accept or control additional inmates or segregate those that cause disruptions or who have contagious diseases.
Because of overcrowded conditions, “booking restrictions” were imposed 12 years ago to limit the number of persons entering jail. These restrictions have increased to the point where officers on the street cannot book suspects into jail for misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor crimes. Officers arresting offenders for crimes including car prowl, theft, drunk driving and disorderly conduct have only one option: issue a citations on the street and hope the person appears in court. A survey demonstrated that over 800 inmates per month are not booked because of these restrictions.

When offenders don’t show up in court, judges issue warrants for their arrest. Officers contacting these wanted criminals still cannot book them because the restrictions also apply to criminals wanted on warrants. These wanted criminals are thus left free on the street, not held accountable for their crimes and who even taunt officers about the restrictions. Warrants are not suggestions, but rather are judicial orders directing officers to take offenders into custody. By ignoring warrants, officers are forced to ignore their duty.

State law mandates that offenders arrested on felony and domestic violence crimes be booked into jail. However, as each new offender comes in the front door, it is necessary to “early release” another out the back door. Every week jail officials must arrange the release of dangerous offenders to make room for new arrests. Early-released offenders often don’t keep court dates and commit new crimes. If the jail problem continues to grow, officers will also need to ignore state booking mandates on for felonies and domestic violence.

An automated fingerprint identification system at the jail instantly identifies fugitives from justice. When offenders are not booked, they are not fingerprinted and are not subject to positive identification procedure. We can only speculate as to how many wanted fugitives evade capture by providing law enforcement with false names.

Aside from threats to human life, potential costly liability exists for not booking or prematurely releasing dangerous offenders. This includes costs associated with defending lawsuits stemming from overcrowded and understaffed conditions. Recent studies by private consultants and the National Institute of Corrections not only highlight these liabilities, but also point out that the structural integrity of the jail is questionable and that the county is spending good money after bad in making the temporary repairs needed to keep it open. The consultants indicate that with current use, the jail has a maximum life span of eight to 10 more years.

Every effort is made to divert as many offenders from jail as possible. Every day, over 100 sentenced offenders receive credit for jail time in alternative programs. Reporting to the Jail Alternative Center, they perform supervised work in the community that includes litter control, salmon habitat restoration, and parks cleanups. Others participate in work release programs. Still more avoid jail and criminal records by participating in drug court. These programs have not only been acclaimed for teaching good work habits and providing treatment, but represent a cost-effective way of diverting offenders from jail. These are good programs that should be expanded but operate on the theory of a carrot and a stick. To be effective, there must be some consequence for failing to meet requirements. Jail restrictions remove those incentives.

County consultants report that the process of finding and acquiring a suitable location, obtaining appropriate zoning and constructing a replacement jail will take five to seven years. The county council and executive are in the process of seeking a location. In the interim, immediate relief is needed and a Jail Work Center is planned as a temporary solution. Designed to hold 155 inmates, it will be constructed in a manner making it marketable for industrial use once the new jail is finally opened. Revenue generated from the future sale of this facility will be earmarked to defray the cost of the new jail.

In recent years, the state legislature eliminated financial assistance it formerly provided counties for criminal justice. It enacted legislation authorizing the tax proposed by Whatcom County Proposition Number 1 and strictly requires that funds only be used for constructing and operating jails. As about one-third of the jail population lives outside Whatcom County, the tax will spread costs among visitors and residents alike. The county has developed a highly detailed financial plan for revenues generated by the tax that provides for both the interim Jail Work Center and a new and adequate jail.

The tax will cost taxpayers an additional $2.7 million per year. However, evidence demonstrates that the costs associated by not implementing this jail plan may far exceed the cost of the tax.
We urge you to carefully study this ballot measure and make the decision you feel is most appropriate.

Bill Elfo, Whatcom County Sheriff; Dave McEachran, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney; Randy Carroll, Chief of police, city of Bellingham; Erik Ramstead, Chief of police, cities of Everson and Nooksack; Mike Haslip, Chief of police, city of Blaine; Jack Foster, Chief of Police, city of Lynden; Chris Haugen, Chief of Police, city of Sumas; Bob Lenz, Washington State Patrol; Captain and Lieutenant’s Association; Gary James, Chief of police, Lummi Law and Order; Steve Defries, Chief of police, Nooksack Tribal Police.