Jail overcrowding is defined as housing more inmates than the building was designed to hold. In 1984, Whatcom County opened the current downtown jail, originally designed to hold 148 people. As jail population has grown, some limited remodeling helped to increase the operational capacity of the main jail to 212. However, the infrastructure (kitchen, laundry, visiting booths, medical clinic areas, etc.) was not able to grow along with the additional beds. With jail population outgrowing the expanded capacity the County, with taxpayer support, constructed a temporary work center in 2006 with an additional 150 beds and an operational capacity of about 127. Today, the combined operational capacity is 339. The maximum reported occupancy of the existing jail over the last two years occurred on May 11th, 2015. On that date, it was reported that a total of 389 offenders were under supervision.
In addition to design capacity, overcrowding is caused by several factors. Population increases, legislative changes related to mandated arrests, and the Sentencing Reform Act which pushed sentences that were once served in prisons to county jails, have all contributed to overcrowding. Overcrowding accelerates erosion to the building, has detrimental effects on the jail population, and escalates staffing needs.