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Monday, October 19, 2020

City Council creates inmate housing agreement

Of the 207 inmates housed in the Whatcom County jail, only seven are Bellingham residents, Bellingham City Council member Daniel Hammill said. // Photo by Matt Pearson
Of the 207 inmates housed in the Whatcom County jail, only seven are Bellingham residents, Bellingham City Council member Daniel Hammill said. // Photo by Matt Pearson

By Anna Edlund

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In an effort to ease Whatcom County Jail overcrowding, the Bellingham City Council has authorized an agreement for inmate housing with the South Correctional Entity (SCORE) in Des Moines, WA.

The agreement is to be “used as a last resort,” said Bellingham City attorney Peter Ruffatto while addressing the city council on March 21. According to Ruffatto, Bellingham is currently sending overflow inmates to Yakima County Jail, where 22 inmates are housed so far.

Whatcom County Jail was designed to hold 148 individuals, but additional beds have been installed in pre-existing cells and storage areas have been converted to housing.

As of March 14, the Whatcom County Jail had a population of 206 inmates; Bellingham residents accounted for just seven of those inmates, according to records observed by the city since January of this year.

“We would like to have this additional tool if circumstances warrant it,” Ruffatto said about the new jail agreement.

These circumstances may include a large inmate population in Whatcom County, the absence of available transportation for inmates to Yakima due to a timing issue, or a specialized medical problem, Ruffatto said.

The Bellingham City Council unanimously voted to authorize the agreement.

“This strikes me as the belt and suspenders approach,” councilmember Michael Lilliquist told the council. “I think it’s a good idea to have those suspenders as back-up.”

Other members of the council had a less optimistic view on the agreement.

“I do have to express my frustration with this,” councilmember Daniel Hammill said. “Going to this level of spending staff time and our legal departments time to figure out a solution, when out of 206 inmates, we are accountable for seven.”

Overcrowding in the jail has been an issue since last year’s ballot measure, Proposition No. 2015-1, was rejected by Whatcom voters in November 2015.

The ballot measure proposed a sales tax increase of 0.2 percent to raise funds for the construction and operation of a new jail facility. (Link 10- first page bottom right) The amount the county planned to raise through the ballot measure was not specified.

“Ideally we need a regional facility that accommodates all of our needs, but it’s going to take all of us together to make that happen,”
 Jack Louws, Whatcom County executive

City Council also approved an emergency ordinance on Feb. 2 to create an electronic home detention program for individuals convicted or charged with nonviolent misdemeanors. This would include two devices that would track an individual’s movements and would be used as an alternative to jail time.

This ordinance creates a partnership between the city and Friendship Diversion Services, a  public benefit corporation that would implement the electronic monitoring devices to participants.

The first device is a wearable alcohol monitor entitled SCRAM (secure continuous remote alcohol monitor), which measures blood alcohol content by skin perspiration. The second device is Relialert, a GPS monitor and cellular communication device that tracks the wearer’s movements.

Friendship Diversion Services Executive Director Barbara Miller explained to City Council the appeal of a home monitoring service during their meeting on Jan 25.

“The equipment we bring to this potential contract is state of the art and reliable,” Miller told the city council. Miller said she hoped the equipment would reduce judicial intervention with criminal justice systems and potentially reduce overall criminal actions.

The ordinance moved forward as the Whatcom County Sheriff indicated that he would impose booking restrictions to the number of Bellingham inmates in the jail if the issue of overcrowding was not resolved.

“Ideally we need a regional facility that accommodates all of our needs, but it’s going to take all of us together to make that happen,” Whatcom County executive Jack Louws said.

Louws heads the executive branch of the Whatcom County Government and creates plans for the future development of the county.

“It’s not like buying a park, it’s something we have a constitutional mandate to do,” Louws said.  “To take care of and provide a safe jail for the inmates and employees, but also to be able to provide reasonable public safety.”

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