For decades, Whatcom County has struggled to strike a balance between prevention and incarceration in its approach to public safety, including reducing the number of people who are incarcerated and have behavioral health or substance issues. In Whatcom County, as elsewhere, a growing number of community members and leaders have called for reforms to reduce incarceration and prevent criminal legal system involvement, while still providing for public safety. Key developments over the last 20 years in the County's efforts toward these goals are outlined below.
After determining that existing jail facilities in downtown Bellingham no longer meet existing County needs, Whatcom County Council (Council) approves Resolution 2004-050 to submit a ballot measure for a 0.1% sales tax to fund a new jail and work center. Voters approve the tax in November 2004.
An interim jail work center opens in November 2006.
Council adopts Ordinance 2007-033 to fund site selection for a new jail.
Council adopts Ordinance 2008-027, establishing a 0.1% sales tax for new and expanded chemical dependency and mental health programs.
In June 2011, Council establishes a Whatcom County Jail Planning Task Force.
In March 2012, the Jail Planning Task Force presents a Report to Council recommending the need to construct a new jail.
In January 2013, Council adopts Ordinance 2013-003 establishing a project fund for the new jail project. County Council approves the purchase of an approximately 40-acre site on LaBounty Road in Ferndale for the proposed construction of a new jail.
In September, a DLR Group Report shares projected jail capacity needs along with potential design options for the Ferndale location.
In June 2015, Council adopts Ordinance 2015-025 establishing the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF), whose purpose it is to review Whatcom County's criminal legal and and behavioral health programs and make recommendations to safely and effectively reduce incarceration of individuals struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency and minimize jail utilization by pretrial defendants who can safely be released. The IPRTF is comprised of community members, service providers, elected officials, court officers, and law enforcement.
Council also approves Resolution 2015-024, putting forth a ballot measure for a 0.2% sales tax increase to fund a new jail on LaBounty Road in Ferndale. In November 2015, voters reject the ballot measure to fund a new jail.
In March 2016, Council approves Resolution 2016-008 outlining a statement of principles for incarceration prevention, criminal justice, and jail planning. On October 10, 2016, consultant group design2 LAST presents a Report on the existing jail’s infrastructure and operations.
In June 2017, Council hosts a Public Hearing to gather community input on the size of a proposed new jail.
In July, the IPRTF and consultant group Vera Institute of Justice present their recommendations for improving the criminal legal system and reducing the jail population in Whatcom County (see the final Vera Report).
Council adopts Ordinance 2017-037 authorizing another ballot measure for a 0.2% sales tax increase to fund costs associated with financing, construction, maintenance, and operation of jail facilities and incarceration prevention programs including medical and behavioral health facilities and programs. In November 2017, voters reject the ballot measure.
After the failed ballot measure in 2017, a Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee hosts seven (7) listening sessions in cities across the county to hear citizens’ ideas and get input on improving Whatcom County’s criminal legal system. A summary of findings from these sessions was compiled into the Report on Whatcom County Criminal Justice and Public Safety Listening Tour.
On August 7, 2019, Council approves Resolution 2019-036, adopting a statement of public health, safety, and justice facility planning principles for Whatcom County. The resolution identifies a need to plan for a criminal legal system that is built to address the root causes of incarceration and designed with rehabilitation as the goal. It prioritizes community-based preventative services, successful re-entry, and reducing reincarceration. It focuses on reducing demand for jail by investing in behavioral health services. The resolution also expresses the Council’s intent to develop a potential ballot initiative.
On September 10, 2019, Councilmember Barry Buchanan, the Executive's Office, the Sheriff, and the Health Department present to Council a detailed task list outlining the process for developing a needs assessment (see Exhibit A).
On September 23, 2019, Councilmember Buchanan and Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey host a public meeting alongside IPRTF members to provide updates on the work of the Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. Learn more by viewing the event’s Press Release, Video, and Presentation Slides.
On March 25, 2020, the project team announces a pause in the project due to the COVID-19 public health emergency. Executive Sidhu, Sheriff Elfo, Councilmember Buchanan, and Prosecutor Richey share a May 21, 2020 Memo stressing the importance of providing protections for jail staff and incarcerated individuals during the COVID-19 emergency.
A June 23, 2020 Memo to the SAC members from Executive Sidhu, Sheriff Elfo, Councilmember Buchanan, and Prosecutor Richey extends the pause on the project through the end of the year, and the consultant contract is cancelled. SAC members are asked to read through a list of previous studies during the hiatus. An October 21, 2020 Memo shares information about the project's future.
On September 28, 2021, Council passes a motion to re-engage the SAC members and restart the Justice Project.
The SAC holds their first meeting on January 20, 2022.
Council receives an update on the Justice Project on April 26, 2022 (see AB2022-159), which includes a presentation on the committee’s progress toward creating a Needs Assessment report. To learn more about the activities of the SAC during 2022, see SAC Meetings and Additional Information.
On September 13, 2022, Council authorizes two contracts for consulting services to support the justice project in communications and meeting facilitation (AB2022-475 and AB2022-495). A communications consultant, The Vida Agency (TVA) is tasked with engaging the public in the project and gathering feedback from community members to use in developing the needs assessment (see Public Engagement Plan and Appendices).
In October 2022, an online survey collects feedback (over 1,700 responses) on elements of the criminal legal system in Whatcom County. The results of the survey are compiled in the Justice Project Survey Findings Report and Survey Appendices.
TVA conducts listening sessions and informal interviews in October and November 2022 to get feedback from tribal members, immigrants, individuals previously incarcerated, and family members of individuals previously incarcerated. TVA provides an Engagement Report summarizing recent public engagement efforts and the resulting feedback.
A Town Hall Listening Session is held on November 15, 2022 to gather more community perspectives on incarceration in Whatcom County. The following reports provide additional information about this event:
On January 26, 2023, the SAC approves a motion recommending the final Justice Project Needs Assessment Report to County Council. The report is presented to County Council on February 7, 2023 (AB2023-106). Council approves Resolution 2023-006 on February 21, 2023, accepting the Justice Project Needs Assessment Report and identifying next steps to develop an Implementation Plan.
In March and April, the IPRTF holds five (5) workshops with key stakeholders on the topics of systems, services, facilities – community based, facilities – jail and accessory services, and funding. Visit the IPRTF Meetings page for information about these workshops, held as Special Meetings, and upcoming IPRTF events.
Focus groups are held in April and May to get feedback from underrepresented groups including those with lived experience in the criminal legal system and their family members, Lummi Nation, Nooksack Tribe, and BIPOC community members.
In April, Washington State University enters a Contract to provide an independent review of the county and community's progress toward addressing the recommendations made in the 2017 Vera Report.
A Town Hall Listening Session is held on May 24, 2023 for members of the public to learn about the draft Implementation Plan and offer feedback on proposed projects for systems, services, and facilities related to public health and safety in Whatcom County.
The Justice Project Needs Assessment Implementation Plan identifies next steps in addressing the recommendations of the Needs Assessment. The goal of the plan is to provide adequate facilities, staffing, resources and services at all points of contact between the community and the criminal legal system and to deliver on the Needs Assessment’s vision, values, and goals for the criminal legal system in Whatcom County. The Implementation Plan is led by the County Executive, with guidance from the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF). A short video provides background on the plan's development and scope.
Council votes to introduce the Implementation Plan as amended at a special meeting on June 26th.
On July 11th, Council passes Ordinance No. 2023-039, adopting the Implementation Plan and submitting to the voters of Whatcom County a ballot measure to authorize a sales and use tax for public health, safety, and justice facilities and services.
In November, Whatcom County voters approve Proposition 2023-04, authorizing a sales and use tax of two-tenths of one percent (0.002 or 20 cents for every $100) for costs associated with a new county jail, behavioral health, withdrawal management services, supportive housing, public safety, and other criminal justice facilities and services.