When ‘lock 'em up’ doesn’t make sense - Salish Current
June 25, 2024
When ‘lock ’em up’ doesn’t make sense
Matt Benoit

A hub for first responders focused on frequent users of emergency medical services for substance use disorders and mental health challenges was established this year in Downtown Bellingham, providing an alternative of care for some to arrest and time in jail. Fire/EMS Captain Steve Larsen talks with Teddy Rivard, co-owner of MW Soapworks next door to the public service office on Commercial Street. (COB)

June 25, 2024
When ‘lock ’em up’ doesn’t make sense
Matt Benoit

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Whatcom pursues diversion aimed at healthy outcomes as an alternative to incarceration

Between 1970 and 2014, the number of people in Whatcom County’s jail increased almost nine-fold. The county’s overall population, meanwhile, increased about two-and-a-half times in the same time span, according to the county’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF).

Formed in 2015, the roughly 30-member IPRTF is comprised of local municipal, public health and law enforcement members who make recommendations for safely and effectively reducing incarceration numbers.

Concurrent with changing best practices across the United States, a much greater local effort has been exacted in recent years towards keeping those who commit low-level crimes out of the county’s aging jail.

Peter Frazier, cochair of the IPRTF, said the jail no longer holds people for misdemeanors. The vast majority of inmates are people charged with serious crimes who are being held pre-trial.

“Generally, there is a growing understanding that people with substance use and mental health disorders, and those experiencing homelessness, do not do well or belong in jail for low-level crimes,” Frazier said. “While an argument can be made that people need to be held accountable for any crimes they commit so we may preserve public order and curb antisocial behavior, the tools we have available often do not have the intended effect of moderating behaviors or improving lives.”

Those who cycle through a system of police, courts, jails and community programs, Frazier said, can only be helped with a greater emphasis on healthy outcomes.  

“We need more attention to the end user, the people in crisis, and what will help them navigate through the system and get help when they are ready,” he added. “We need to reform the vast inefficiencies throughout the system.”

Today’s alternatives

For nonviolent offenders who offer minimal risk to the community, the county’s interim work center provides a series of non-jail options. 

These include in-and-out-of-custody work crews, work release and electronic home-detention (house arrest). 

The work of the IPRTF, meanwhile, has led to the implementation of several programs to engage with those who frequently use emergency and healthcare services. This includes the Ground Level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs.

Also included in these programs is the Alternative Response Team (ART) pilot, which has paired mental health specialists and registered nurses in two-person teams to respond to mental health and substance use situations. 

The county also has a community paramedic program, which responds rapidly to issues like overdoses, from a downtown Bellingham public safety office on Commercial Street. In addition, specialty mental health and drug courts provide court-ordered treatments that provide incarceration alternatives. 

A crisis stabilization center, known as the Anne Deacon Center for Hope, was also formed in recent years to provide behavioral health and substance-use disorder (SUD) services.

Implementing the future

The Justice Project Implementation Plan, developed by a stakeholder advisory committee that includes members of the IPRTF and adopted by the Whatcom County Council last year, is the main roadmap for how incarceration rates may be further reduced.

Safety cells, for privacy for inmates in distress due to behavioral health or at risk of violence, at the Whatcom County Jail were part of a 2022 video tour of by the county’s Stakeholder Advisory Committee. (SAC)

The plan has a number of first-year projects currently in-progress, including the creation of a 23-hour-a-day crisis center, a program for mental health-based sentencing alternatives, a prosecutorial diversion and competency restoration program, and the embedding of SUD specialists at the response division of the county’s health and community services department. 

All of this work, Frazier said, is not easy, and is sometimes slower than people would like given the inefficiencies and sizes of the systems involved.  

“It’s a huge focus of energy and resources on a relatively small number of people,” he said of the implementation plan.

A June 18 memorandum from the Whatcom County executive’s office notes progress on several of the plan’s fronts. It includes an interlocal agreement between the county and local cities to cost-share, finance and oversee the collection of the public health, safety and justice sales tax initiative passed by voters last fall. Half the revenue from that tax will go specifically towards treatment and incarceration prevention programs.  

Areas for improvement

Frazier said that he’s impressed with what’s been completed in recent months and the seriousness with which stakeholders are approaching tasks. Nevertheless, there is much more work to be done. 

That includes expanding the use of electronic home-monitoring across a broader section of the court system. Currently, it is only used in District Court.

“We’re trying to keep people out of the actual jail as much as possible,” Frazier said. “If electronic home monitoring works in District Court, it should be able to work in Superior Court. It seems promising to me.”

Data work is another place where more can and should be done, he added. While Whatcom County recently received a $245,000 grant for data and oversight work, a lot of potential criminal justice system data is either not organized or is separated across systems that are not communicating with one another, he said. 

“We’re putting a lot of taxpayer dollars into these diversion programs, yet we don’t always know what’s working and what’s not,” Frazier said. “My hope is that we will figure out a way that we can follow people through the system, and know what programs are actually working for them and getting them into treatment and keeping them out of jail, and improving their lives.”

Krystal Rodriguez, a member of the Riveters Collective Justice System Committee, also said that the data component of the plan hasn’t yet been realized.

A 2023 report from Washington State University, Rodriguez said, was released last fall as a way of updating recommendations from a 2017 Vera Institute of Justice report. Much of the information was not as explicit as was hoped, she said. While the report made mention of a public-facing dashboard for incarceration data, Rodriguez said Riveters has seen no proof that this dashboard is actually being created. 

Treatment and housing

Dan Hammill, a Bellingham city council member who serves as co-chair on the IPRTF’s behavioral health committee, said he sees several areas where improvements in treatment and diversion services are still badly needed. 

The first is more treatment services for opiate use disorder. Positive developments on that front are slated to be announced this fall, though Hammill said he was unable to provide further details.

The second, he said, is housing. Although there are several housing options in Bellingham for those undergoing drug court-based treatment, there is still an insufficient supply for many others who could use it.

“A lot of our folks who are either going to jail or being diverted from jail, or need treatment services, they require housing,” he said. “It’s a challenge in pretty much every community, but we’re certainly seeing it here.”

Currently, the voter-approved Bellingham Home Fund and a state-approved affordable housing levy provide a base of about $7 million per year for low-income housing projects, which has helped pave the way for projects like Samish Commons and the waterfront Millworks complex. 

“We’re trying to build that inventory,” he said. “The problem is that these housing projects take time, and they’re expensive.”

This fall, Bellingham will initiate a community court through the city’s municipal court. That court, Hammill said, will provide incarceration alternatives through organizations like Opportunity Council and Law Advocates dependent on an individual’s specific circumstances, such as having committed a crime in the process of fleeing a domestic violence incident.

While current diversion programs are helping hundreds of people per year, Hammill said, keeping even more people out of jail — or helping them once they’re out — all comes down to a matter of capacity.

“We know what works and what doesn’t, but like any government entity, it all comes down to lack of capacity to address the issues,” he said. “If we had more personnel and we had more places for people to be housed, we could further reduce incarceration.”

Ed.: The Bellingham City Club – a nonpartisan civic organization that addresses community issues – will host a panel discussion among county health department director Erika Lautenbach, sheriff Donnell Tanksley and executive Satpal Sidhu on alternatives to incarceration on Wednesday, June 26, at the Bellingham Yacht Club. A video recording will be posted online after the event.

By Matt Benoit

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