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Is the third time a charm for a new Whatcom County Jail?

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Ballot measures to replace the Whatcom County jail failed in 2015 and 2017. But county leaders hope a third time's the charm as voters consider a .2% sales tax on the November ballot to fund a new jail.

And this time, to placate parts of the electorate with anti-carceral views, the county council included money for services to hopefully keep people out of the new jail.

Most local politicians and law enforcement say the jail should be replaced. After the second failed vote in 2017, Whatcom County leaders held a series of listening sessions to better understand the voters who rejected the proposal.

“What they learned is that voters who voted no wanted more emphasis on treatment and rehabilitation, and less on incarceration,” said Ralph Schwartz, the government reporter at Cascadia Daily News who has been following this story.

Schwartz reported that, in the 2017 measure, $30 million had been set aside for treatment and social services. The current measure on the November ballot could provide 10 times that amount over the next 30 years.

The Whatcom County Jail in downtown Bellingham was built in 1984 and designed to house 148 inmates. Today, after converting windowless recreation spaces into living quarters, it typically holds more than 180.

Elected officials and law enforcement say that the current county jail is overcrowded and doesn’t have adequate space for “families to visit, for the service providers to have an office, for vocational services. There are no reentry services,” said Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu. “All these things have been missing.”

There are currently booking restrictions in the jail because of overcrowding.

“It is crowded; there are certainly people who feel like jail is punishment and it shouldn't be pleasant, and I get the sentiments. I think this is more than that,” said David Goldman, who teaches at the jail. “This feels inhumane.”

A stakeholder advisory committee developed an assessment for the new county jail proposal that is now on the November ballot.

As part of that work, Goldman surveyed inmates and jail employees to better understand their views on a potential replacement jail.

“It's a very political issue, and we really wanted the questions to be open and non-biased,” Goldman said. “Where should we be putting our money? Where should we be putting our resources? What would be most helpful?”

The survey had a 30% response rate. About 60% of people surveyed said they wanted a new jail. But when asked about priorities, a majority of respondents rated supportive housing, mental health services, and substance use treatment as extremely important.

Only 29% of respondents rated a new jail as extremely important; almost half of respondents said it was not important or somewhat important.

County officials hope a new emphasis on treatment will sway voters to support a new jail, but opponents of the plan question whether this measure still focuses too much on a new jail.

“I didn't see how the plan truly prioritized behavioral health services or mental health services,” said Jason McGill, director of Northwest Youth Services and member of the Whatcom County Incarceration Reduction and Prevention Task Force.

“I saw that the plan still focused on building a new facility, the jail, and that in itself to me was very problematic and was not speaking to what the community was asking for,” he added.

McGill also takes issue with how the county will initially use sales tax money.

Schwartz, from Cascadia Daily News, said county leaders plan to use most of that money “towards paying off the bond that would build the new jail, while leaving a couple million dollars a year initially for services.”

Sidhu said that there will still be money for services from a county behavioral health tax and the state, though the sales tax won’t go towards services until four to six years after the levy passes.

He also said that front loading the funding from the levy to build the new jail will save the county money in the long run when it comes to paying back the bond.

“The rationale of county leaders is that if they pay a significant portion of the debt early, that means their interest payments in the future will be lower,” said Schwartz, who compared the move to putting more money into a down payment on a house.

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