Previous studies, such as a 2016 report, concluded the best solution is to build a new jail due to significant building deficiencies, projected costs, and limited space in the current facility. The Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) evaluated current conditions and costs to maintain the main jail facility in consideration with their belief in a healthy and humane jail and determined that the existing facility lacks the capacity to meet the needs of incarcerated people and should be replaced.
There was also common agreement, from the SAC, through IPRTF workshops, and through focus groups with BIPOC communities and people with lived experience, that a new facility needs to reflect a different approach.
The replacement facility will be designed and built to enable secure detention with integrated services for people who pose a significant threat to public safety. It also will include an array of rehabilitation services and diversion options including facilities and alternatives for lower-risk offenders (e.g., work release). Behavioral care treatment beds and services would be connected with these facilities as an alternative to incarceration.
Learn more about facilities recommendations.
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Building from the recommendations of the Justice Project Needs Assessment, the Implementation Plan lists five (5) key strategies and fifteen (15) projects, including:
Read the full Implementation Plan.
The Justice Project began with a Council-appointed Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) tasked with guiding the development of a Needs Assessment report. The SAC had 38 voting members including individuals with lived experience in the criminal legal system, mental health and substance use disorder providers, housing specialists, criminal justice advocates, as well as key city and county leaders.
The next step, which was to create an Implementation Plan, was led by the Executive’s Office with guidance from the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) acting as the Law and Justice Council (LJC) for Whatcom County. The IPRTF has been working since 2015 to provide resources to address the underlying causes of incarceration in order to lead people out of the criminal legal system and into supportive services, reducing the chances of reincarceration. The Justice Project – including the Needs Assessment and the subsequent Implementation Plan – has also been guided by input gathered through community focus groups, workshops, surveys, and listening sessions.
On June 12, 2023, the IPRTF endorsed the Draft Implementation Plan as ultimately approved by the County Executive and County Council. The Draft Implementation Plan then moved under the direction of the Executive and County Council. Councilmembers discussed the draft Implementation Plan during a reoccurring series of Committee of the Whole Justice Project Workshops. Workshop materials and information are available here. During a special meeting on June 26, 2023, County Council approved the Implementation Plan as amended.
The Implementation Plan identifies key projects and actions that can be taken in the next 1-3 years. Some projects are already underway, but others will take longer to accomplish and may not be completed within the 1-3 year timeframe.
View the Implementation Plan, including a list of projects that can be started in year one.
In the past, there was an assessment of the jail facility but not all the complex components that determine who is in the jail, whether enough is being done to keep people out of jail, and how large the jail should be. This time, an in-depth needs assessment was completed under the guidance of a diverse stakeholder group with a large amount of public engagement and feedback, including feedback from priority audiences such as people with lived experience in the criminal legal system. This effort focuses on all the elements that help prevent people from going to jail and keep them from reincarceration. The Implementation Plan was developed in coordination with the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, which is made up of service providers, community members, and other key stakeholders who are working to refocus Whatcom County’s approach to public safety around equity, public health, and community safety.
The Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) will establish the Justice Project Oversight and Planning Committee (JPOP) to ensure transparency and facilitate communication with the public.
You can also stay updated on IPRTF news by:
Public comment on the Justice Project and Implementation Plan has concluded. Thank you to all who shared input and contributed to the development of the plan!
Past comments on the Justice Project are posted and available for viewing.
To stay informed on issues relating to the criminal legal system and behavioral health, follow the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF):
The various services, facilities, and oversight projects outlined in the Implementation Plan will need to be matched to applicable funding types. Some of the funding is in progress or likely while other sources still need to be identified in order to fill gaps.
How It Can Be Spent
Proposed new sales tax
1/3 must go to Criminal Justice, 2/3 for anything, including the proposed Implementation Plan
Behavioral Health and Housing facility capital costs (crisis relief and stabilization centers)
County Behavioral Health Fund
Any behavioral health purpose, including Therapeutic Courts, school prevention, community behavioral health services, psychiatric services in the jail, GRACE program.
Healthcare, including behavioral health services, outside the jail (reimbursement rates are limited)
North Sound Behavioral Health ASO
State and Federal funding for regional behavioral health facilities and services, crisis services, involuntary commitment, co-responder program
Local housing funds
Affordable Housing, rental assistance, shelter and related services
General Fund and existing sales tax
Supports operating costs for existing jail and Work Center
Read about funding possibilities in the Implementation Plan.
Whatcom County Response Systems division of Health and Community Services has a number of programs to support community members facing substance use disorders, mental health challenges, and other emergency situations, including:
The Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) has introduced and helped facilitate a number of strategies to lead people out of the criminal legal system including incarceration alternatives, prevention and diversion programs, and process improvements.
Learn more about efforts to reduce the size of the jail population.
The Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) included members with lived experience in the criminal legal system as well as representatives of local Tribal Nations. For development of the Needs Assessment report, Justice Project planners sought out the feedback of individuals with lived experience and BIPOC communities through surveys, focus groups, and listening sessions. Learn more about this community engagement process.
The Implementation Plan identifies the following recommended structures for oversight:
The Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) will create a Justice Project Oversight and Planning Committee (JPOP) to help track progress, prepare updates, and provide public communication and engagement. Participants of this committee will include members of BIPOC communities, people with lived experience in the criminal legal system, and service providers.
The Whatcom County Executive will establish a Justice Project Finance Advisory Board made up of representatives from local jurisdictions, police departments, tribes, communities with lived experience in the criminal legal system, the behavioral health system, and IPRTF co-chairs. This board will provide oversight of the funds collected for the construction and operations of the jail and behavioral care center and associated services. The Advisory Board will also ensure fair cost sharing and public transparency.
No, there are different funding sources for the various proposed projects, and all of these funding sources will be critical to advancing the projects in the Implementation Plan.
Ballot measure for new sales tax/bond
1/3 must go to Criminal Justice, 2/3 for anything, including the proposed Implementation Plan
Healthcare, including behavioral health services, outside the jail (reimbursement rates and limited)
State and Federal funding for Regional behavioral health facilities and services, crisis services, involuntary commitment, co-responder program
Affordable Housing, Rental Assistance, Shelter and related services
The average combined daily population in the current jail and work center facilities is 325. Approximately 50 percent of the jail population experiences some form of mental illness while roughly 80 percent of the jail population experiences a substance use disorder. Approximately 90 percent of those booked and held in custody have been charged with at least one felony offense.
Snapshot of Charges from April 24 – May 1, 2023
Description of Crime
# of People
% of Total Population
Murder; bank robbery, robbery, assault, or burglary with deadly weapon
Robbery; attempted murder; assault (severe bodily harm); assault with car (usually DUI); burglary of home; manufacture/intent to distribute drugs; auto theft; possessing a stolen gun
Assault First Responder; domestic violence; DUI; attempt to elude police; felony harassment
Assault (usually in domestic violence); DUI; violate no-contact order; probation violation
View the “Who’s in Jail” presentation for a more detailed breakdown of jail population statistics.
Most individuals in the jail are awaiting trial after judicial review. More serious crimes usually take longer to process, and if someone has multiple charges in multiple jurisdictions, the time spent in jail can increase. Most people booked and held in custody have been charged with at least one felony offense.
Some individuals may have failed to appear for court in the past, resulting in a higher bail amount, which they cannot pay. The Superior Court currently uses an evidence-based, statistically valid pretrial risk assessment in making pretrial release decisions.
A small percentage of individuals being held in the jail pre-trial are awaiting competency restoration, which typically requires a wait for a bed at Western State Hospital.
Learn more about factors affecting the size of the jail population and their length of stay.
The county does not have the power to make determinations about bail. Changes to the bail system would have to occur at the state or federal level.
Judges in Superior Court currently use a risk assessment tool called the Public Safety Assessment to help make pretrial release decisions. The purpose of this tool is to assess defendants’ risks of failing to appear at future court hearings and determine whether they can be safely released in the community until trial. The Pretrial Processes Work Group, a subcommittee of the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) has been investigating the possibility of enabling this tool for use by judges in all Whatcom County Courts.
The current jail facility was originally built in 1984 for 148 people, though it experienced extreme overcrowding in the 1990s with populations over 260. The Interim Work Center, which opened in 2006, has capacity for 150 low-risk individuals, bringing the total number of available beds to 359. The average daily population across the two facilities hit highs of over 400 between 2007 and 2014 prior to many diversion programs being implemented. In May 2023, with booking restrictions in place, the average daily population of the combined facilities was 325.
A new jail and behavioral care center would absorb the population from the current jail and the Interim Work Center, which would then be replaced or repurposed. It would also incorporate a behavioral care center with additional beds.
In calculating the size for detention facilities, the National Institute of Corrections recommends approximately 20 percent of additional capacity to allow for days with above average needs and accommodation of individuals with different security classifications. Adding 20 percent to the 359 current available beds results in a total of 430 beds. This estimate assumes very little change in the average daily population of people detained (with booking restrictions).
The Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) recommended the jail be right-sized without the use of booking restrictions. Ultimately, requirements about who has to be booked into the jail are established by state code. There are opportunities to release people prior to trial, but that’s at the discretion of the judge. Risk assessment tools can be helpful in determining who can safely await trial outside the jail, and who can participate in diversion programs, thereby reducing the population that is incarcerated.
For the purposes of cost estimation only, a conceptual bed count was defined. Preliminary concepts for the new jail facility account for minimum to high security housing for 400-440 individuals, not including behavioral care center beds, which are estimated to serve 60-75 individuals. A final size (bed count) still needs to be determined.
At the Council’s June 13th Special Committee of the Whole meeting, Council approved a motion to amend the Implementation Plan to clearly define the equation for calculating the number of beds that will be proposed initially and what triggers expansion. (AB2023-304).
The Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) and Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force (IPRTF) are considering the advantages and disadvantages of three county properties as well as horizontal versus vertical designs for the construction of a new facility. The Civic Center site was eliminated from consideration by the IPRTF because of limited space and high costs. These conceptual costs are only starting places of what would house the people currently incarcerated. These numbers do not account for population growth, the removal of booking restrictions, or the addition of behavioral care beds and treatment facilities.
At the Council’s June 13th Special Committee of the Whole meeting, Council approved a motion to select Labounty as the location for a new correctional facility (AB2023-304).
Jail and Behavioral Care Center Location
Civic Center (near Courthouse, located in parking lot across from current jail)
Irongate (Division St.)
Labounty (off Slater Rd. & I-5)
1.3 acres developable
10.6+ acres, 5 acres developable
39+ acres, 16+ acres developable
Vertical (~7 stories)
Vertical (~5 stories)
Horizontal (1-2 stories)
Distance from Courthouse
Preliminary Cost Estimate
Co-location with Anne Deacon Center for Hope (Crisis Stabilization Center)
Lower operating costs because of horizontal design; adaptable to changing needs over time; able to co-locate other facilities to create a campus (e.g., behavioral health services, housing services, etc.)
Sources of Funding
Status of Funding
23-hour Crisis Relief Center
State - $9M already received; Proposed new sales tax - remaining $3M
Estimated local share of operational costs
$500,000 - $1M/year
Behavioral Health Fund; New sales tax
Jail and Behavioral Health Treatment Center
Capital expenses – detention for low-high risk + space for services
$8 - $10M/year
Capital expenses – Behavioral Care Center
Operational costs – behavioral health treatment center
Capital expenses – small recovery/supportive housing
Behavioral Health Fund
Federal HOME funds (to match state funds when possible)
Operational costs – small recovery/supportive housing
Capital expenses – large re-entry supportive housing
Behavioral Health fund
Local housing funds (to match $20M+ in state & federal funds)
Operational costs – large re-entry supportive housing
The 0.1% sales tax was approved by voters in November 2004 and implemented in 2005. Funding was directed to “costs associated with financing, design, acquisition, construction, equipping, operating, maintaining, remodeling, repairing, re-equipping, and improvement of jail facilities that house inmates being held, charged, or convicted of misdemeanor or felony acts,” as per RCW 82.14.350. The funding was used to construct a minimum-security work center, which was intended to be a temporary facility while the County planned for a new jail. Although sales tax revenues provided some funding for a new jail, operational costs and jail repairs authorized by the ballot measure resulted in insufficient remaining funds to pay for the costs of designing and constructing a new jail.