Amid widespread reexamination of policing and criminal justice reform in the last two years, local leaders and law enforcement are searching for answers on how to handle issues surrounding the Whatcom County jail — and who is held there.
Increasing numbers of people with serious mental health or substance abuse issues are being booked into the oft-crowded and still COVID-restricted facility, and there is ample concern that nobody is benefitting from their being there.
A solution to more appropriately handling some of these cases may lie in crisis diversion programs: providing someone with a non-incarcerated alternative that may also help address their underlying issues.
Locally, two programs are already working on this goal: Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) and Ground-level Response And Coordinated Engagement (GRACE).
LEAD was introduced to Whatcom County in 2019 through the prosecutor’s office, and has become a multilateral partnership between the health department, sheriff’s office, multiple police departments and Sea Mar Community Health Centers.
GRACE, meanwhile, provides coordinated services to those who frequently make use of local emergency and criminal justice systems. These people often struggle in a cycle of instability regarding their behavior health and housing, and wind up being seen repeatedly by local responders.
Another soon-to-be-added diversion solution is the Alternate Response Team (ART), a Bellingham-Whatcom County partnership program providing a behavioral health response to 911 calls not requiring police.
Longer stays, more felony charges
While it all sounds helpful, there are still many questions over how, or if, these programs will make a real difference on jail overcrowding issues, especially as plans for a new jail remain unresolved.
The Whatcom County jail was originally built in 1983, with capacity for 148 inmates. With remodels, its current capacity is now 212, according to Deb Slater, Community Programs Coordinator for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office. The nearby Jail Work Center has 150 beds, creating a total capacity of 362 inmates.
Currently, the average daily jail population — which includes both the main jail and work center — has risen to the low 280s, said Wendy Jones, Chief Corrections Deputy for the sheriff’s department.
The COVID-19 factor
Increases in the average jail stay and the number of mentally ill inmates held on felony charges are among several reasons for the increase, Jones said. A pandemic-caused backup in the local court system and continuing COVID-19 restrictions have also contributed significantly.
Current booking restrictions remain unchanged from October 2021, Jones said, and must accommodate Washington State Health Department guidance suggesting jails must remain able to medically isolate those with COVID-19 symptoms or positive test results at booking.
Medically isolated patients are housed alone whenever possible, but Jones said COVID-positive inmates have sometimes had to share cells with other confirmed-COVID-case inmates due to overcrowding. Potentially COVID-exposed inmates are housed in a separate unit, she added, and have limited contact with others until cleared by health care staff.
The jail is also currently short of corrections deputies. Jones said six positions — down from last year’s high of 14 — need to be filled, and recruiting may take three to six months.
The jail’s nursing contractor, Northwest Regional Counsel, is also taking applications for nursing positions in the jail health program.
Impact of ART
While Jones hopes ART will have a positive impact, the significant increases of in-custody offenders with serious mental health issues leaves her feeling unsure.
“Given the limited capacity of services in the area, the high acuity we are seeing in those offenders who are coming into custody, and the nature of the charges that resulted in being booked, it may not have a significant impact on the jail population,” she said. “Where I suspect the teams will make a big impact is with individuals who are coming to the attention of the 911 system due to their behavior, which may seem odd, disruptive, or seem frightening to some community members.”
Prior to booking restrictions, Jones said those would be people booked on charges like trespassing, shoplifting, or disorderly conduct. ART, she said, will likely be able to connect those individuals to assistance programs and services that will provide a better chance at addressing an underlying issue than a jail cell does.
Just how many inmates have significant mental health concerns is, of course, a moving picture, but some data points offer an idea.
Each year an average of roughly 3,700 mental health referrals occur at the jail, said Jeremy Morton, a systems analyst at Whatcom County Emergency Medical Services. In 2021, around 575 psychiatric visits also took place there, he added.
The operational reality of being the county’s de facto holding facility for some folks who may not just be mentally ill, but physically ill due to various issues, is a grim one, Morton said: the jail may be providing healthcare to someone who never lives to see their trial date.
If not jail, where?
Of course, when people who would otherwise be incarcerated are diverted away from the jail, the issue then becomes where to put them.
While the county’s Crisis Stabilization Center has helped significantly, additional capacity and personnel are needed, said Barry Buchanan, Whatcom County council member.
Buchanan said it’s still unclear when the ART pilot program will be implemented, owing in some part to the nationwide struggle of finding behavioral health workers. When it does begin, behavioral healthcare workers will be paired with a second person to respond to each call.
In Bellingham, Buchanan said, the second person will likely be an emergency medical technician (EMT). Whenever the program expands to the county, a co-responder model may be used — pairing a sheriff’s deputy with the behavioral health worker.
“The sheriff’s office feels more comfortable having a co-responder model,” he said, adding that law enforcement response times are often slower in the county compared to the city, simply based on geographic distances.
The logistics of a co-responder model are also still being determined, Buchanan said, and could either be a ride-along program or each person in a separate vehicle. With the latter idea, the sheriff could leave if not needed.
A new vision for jail
Building a new jail, of course, is also still something that needs addressing after failed ballot initiatives in 2015 and 2017.
Buchanan is part of the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for the county’s Justice Project that meets regularly to assess the needs for a new jail, with special emphasis on criminal justice reform and accompanying data. While the committee was put on hold when the pandemic struck, Buchanan said it reorganized last fall.
And while properly identifying and addressing the size, location and accompanying services of a new jail is complicated, Buchanan said the committee is taking a harder look than they did several years ago. He said he actually voted against adding the measure to the 2017 ballot, in part due to a perceived lack of proper public engagement on the issue.
Afterward, Buchanan helped form a listening tour to help sort out why voters rejected the proposal.
“What we heard, everywhere from Fairhaven to Lynden, there was one common theme, and that was that people prefer treatment over punishment whenever possible,” he said. “So, we started forming this new vision of a more holistic system. We’re really trying to do a much better job of looking at the community’s overall needs, not just incarceration.”
Revving up the wheels of justice
At the court level, the resumption of trials has certainly helped get the wheels of justice rolling again, albeit slowly. [See “Continuing case backlog slows wheels of justice for Whatcom public defenders — and their clients,” Salish Current, Oct. 22, 2021]
Jane Boman, a senior deputy public Defender in Whatcom County, said applications to the local drug court have begun increasing again after languishing during the pandemic. Admissions of those applications from the prosecutor’s office also appear to be picking up, she said, and a new prosecutor, Gordon Jenkins, has expressed renewed interest in making the program robust.
“I think there’s a lot of optimism right now that we have some new energy and momentum around the program, and I hope that continues,” Boman said.
The data says …
At an April 7 virtual meeting of the stakeholder advisory committee, members examined slides filled with data and listened to Morton’s explanation of it.
While the data presented to members was the most comprehensive they’d seen gathered so far, getting enough data to fully understand what systemic changes to make has its own difficulties, noted meeting attendee Stephen Gockley, who co-chairs the Whatcom County Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force.
“Our data has never been satisfactory to anybody’s thought, in terms of how much we gather — whether we’re gathering everything we want, whether we’re utilizing it the right way, and whether we’re evaluating what we do by using it,” he said. “I think we’re making smart choices, but we’re not able to evaluate to what extent they actually are smart choices, or to the degree to which they’ve been successful.”
The interruption of normal proceedings due to COVID has made normal data gathering even more challenging because numbers don’t reflect pre-pandemic norms.
… diversion seems to work
Still, even limited data seems to suggest that crisis diversion is the right path for communities.
The LEAD program’s methods have been around long enough to be research-proven, gaining nationwide recognition as a model program for nationwide criminal justice reform, Gockley said.
Although GRACE was developed to prevent abuse of 911 and EMS services, reducing incarceration has been a positive side effect, Gockley said.
Data shown during the April 7 meeting shows reductions in jail bookings and the number of jail days for GRACE and LEAD participants in the year following their program completions. There is also data to support the notion these programs save money on emergency medical services.
More anecdotally, Morton noted that sheriff’s office began seeing frequent-appearing names suddenly stop showing up on their offender rolls. In many cases, the reason was that those individuals had wound up in GRACE or LEAD, finally breaking long-standing cycles of crisis.
As for ART, a co-responder model of behavioral health intervention seems to be working well in Skagit County, Morton said, giving hope that something similar will have similar results in Whatcom. [See “Skagit sheriff-social-worker partnership is a game-changer in mental health calls,” Salish Current, Feb. 4, 2022]
All in all, figuring out how to positively affect long-standing, interconnected social systems isn’t easy, as Morton pointed out during the meeting.
“There is such an intersection of history, policy, culture that has led to these systems being this way, and it’s no particular group’s fault,” he said. “No one entity is in charge of all this.”
While current problems may not be any particular group’s fault, it will likely take every group’s combined effort to make crisis diversion programs a future success.
— Reported by Matt Benoit
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