Pro and con viewpoints on Whatcom's Public Health, Safety and Justice Sales and Use Tax proposition - Salish Current
October 4, 2023
Pro and con viewpoints on Whatcom’s Public Health, Safety and Justice Sales and Use Tax proposition
Peter Frazier and Mike McAuley

Right-sized and humane, or the wrong focus? Whatcom County voters will decide in the general election on a proposal to build a new jail, with drug diversion and mental health treatment services, to replace the downtown Bellingham facility built in 1984. (Mike Sato / Salish Current photo © 2023)

October 4, 2023
Pro and con viewpoints on Whatcom’s Public Health, Safety and Justice Sales and Use Tax proposition
Peter Frazier and Mike McAuley

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The essays, analyses and opinions presented as Community Voices express the perspectives of their authors on topics of interest and importance to the community, and are not intended to reflect perspectives on behalf of the Salish Current.

Vote YES on the jail proposal


Our jail is inhumane. We must do better.
Numerous public committees, consultants, behavioral health professionals and elected officials have pronounced our jail an inadequate, overcrowded, financial and legal liability. Its design, condition and lack of space for basic services is dangerous and unhealthy for inmates and staff. It was out-of-date and undersized when opened 39 years ago. Since then, Whatcom’s population doubled, mental health and drug issues worsened, and inmates’ needs have grown.

It’s wasteful AND harmful.
We spend millions of tax dollars maintaining a jail that cannot meet our needs. Numerous legal requirements cannot be met. There’s little room for treatment or medical care. Inmates don’t have access to fresh air, natural light or recreation. Inadequate space limits visitation with attorneys and family.

Public safety has suffered.
Due to overcrowding, people charged with crimes are often released or not even charged. We’re experiencing increased theft, property crimes, overdoses, death and havoc from a growing drug crisis. Our community is greatly disadvantaged by a jail without capacity either to hold people accountable or deliver critical treatment.

This time it’s the plan voters asked for.
A levy passed in 2004 funded building and maintenance for our minimum-security work-center at Irongate and to construct a new main jail as well. However, more levy dollars were spent to shore up current facilities than envisioned. This time we have oversight ensuring funds to build a new safe jail and a behavioral care center on County property near I-5 and Slater. This location allows us to cost-effectively build needed facilities within minutes from both the Courthouse downtown and Irongate, where related behavioral health facilities are being located.

Peter Frazier (Courtesy photo)

In 2015 and 2017 voters rejected jail levies that did not provide for diversion and treatment measures. Since then, 15+ diversion and behavioral health facilities, programs and services have been established. Meanwhile, a diverse, informed group of citizens, mental health professionals, first-responders and community leaders created a comprehensive roadmap for an innovative, right-sized, humane jail as just one facet of a balanced constellation of effective steps to address broad community needs.

The roadmap, the Justice Project Implementation Plan, is Whatcom County’s response to 40+ year old crisis created when the US de-institutionalized mental healthcare. Long-stay psychiatric hospitals were supposed to have been replaced with smaller community-based alternatives, but an appropriately funded system never materialized. Our new jail and behavioral care center will be important components of improved integrated criminal legal and behavioral health systems, that with additional State funding, regional partnerships, and leadership here in Whatcom county, could be a model for the rest of our country.

How it works. 
For twenty cents on a purchase of $100, this November’s proposed sales tax levy is paid by everyone (including Canadian shoppers). It delivers an estimated $137 million, safe, modern, jail with onsite behavioral care for offenders who need mental health and drug treatment. About 50% of proceeds will provide behavioral health and other public safety uses over 30 years. Vote YES. A comprehensive system for better criminal justice and behavioral health outcomes is within our reach.

— Contributed by Peter Frazier

Vote NO on the jail proposal


48%. That’s the percentage of people in our jail with a diagnosed mental illness. 73% are homeless and 85% are struggling with substance abuse. The one consistent fact about most of the people in our jail is this: they are struggling. Struggling to make their way, stay a positive course or even just make it through a single day without a crisis. So, why are we still focusing on a “jail” instead of tackling the common and known set of problems that leads to incarceration in the first place? 

Some people commit terrible crimes and we agree that those people should be incarcerated. Some people commit other, less terrible crimes, that are simply antisocial and debilitating to the community. It’s this latter group we should focus on first in any criminal justice proposal because they are the majority of people in our criminal justice system.

We need programs connecting with people before they end up in jail and help them end the cycle if they do. This can be done by a new Office of Community Health and Safety, staffed by behavioral health specialists and other professionals working with the police and courts. 

Inmates in our jail can only be sentenced to a maximum of 364 days; a jail is not a prison. In a few short months they’ll be released except then they’ll be just a little further behind with no shelter, no job, no hope. Can we expect good outcomes when that’s what our community offers?

Mike McAuley (Courtesy photo)

To tackle this problem, one that is often generational, we need a new paradigm. For example, pairing police with behavioral health specialists who are connected to diversion programs is a known solution paying big dividends in cities across the country. Avoiding incarceration in the first place results in better, lower cost outcomes in the long run. Yet, diversion programs aren’t on the ballot; it’s a jail proposal on the ballot.

We still don’t know locations, timeframes, number of beds truly needed, the cost or how intervention and diversion programs will fit into the proposal. Where will mental health services be managed? Will there be programs for young people who may slip into trouble without intervention? Are there job and life skills training on the inside with a connection to a program when released? And so on. We are being asked to vote on a tax for a really big thing without knowing its total cost or even what it actually is. 

There are just too many unanswered questions but we know what’s needed: intervention and diversion programs along with safe, healthy, hopeful facilities for people housed or working in them. This November, say NO to the jail. Tell our elected leaders to fully and immediately fund intervention, diversion and reintegration programs, speedy arraignments and trials; a new jail building can wait a bit. If we do that, I think we’ll see that a new “jail” shouldn’t be a building, it should be a place where people get help, learn, atone and find hope.

— Contributed by Mike McAuley

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