It was a pragmatic choice. As community leaders, we have had to recognize that increasing and maintaining public safety cannot be achieved with arrests and convictions as primary solutions to crime.
Whatcom County Council created the Preventing and Reducing Incarceration Task Force to help move the county away from a system focused primarily on incarceration, toward one that invests in fairness, public health and community safety.
In previous decades, Whatcom County’s overall population grew two-and-a-half-fold, but the number of people in jail increased almost nine-fold, from 45 to 391 every day.
We now have a record of accomplishments.
This task force, a coalition of community members, service providers, elected officials, justice and law enforcement officers, reviewed existing social services in the community, as well as existing programs and potentials that address the causes of incarceration.
In many cases, people who ended up in prison faced underlying issues, including mental health and addiction issues, which we often did not respond to in a timely and effective manner.
When an incident occurred, people facing such challenges were historically taken to jail or to the emergency room – not because they posed a permanent threat to public safety, but because there was no alternative.
The working group on preventing and reducing incarceration has begun to discuss both new approaches and how to build on existing programs, such as outreach and crisis response teams. homelessness crisis, behavioral health law enforcement officers, in other cities and counties.
Today, there are a number of newly developed diversion programs and response systems, such as the Bellingham Police Department’s Alternate Response Team and the County Sheriff’s Co-Responder Team. Whatcom which will soon be launched. These efforts partner with specially trained law enforcement and health, safety and community organizations to support individuals who have committed multiple low-level criminal offenses due to behavioral health and substance use. .
Increasingly, law enforcement officers are working together with behavioral health professionals to help people find immediate pathways to the right services — rather than incarceration.
Understanding the needs of first responders, especially law enforcement officers, is key to creating facilities and services that can help community members avoid navigating the system at great cost to themselves. and for the public.
In 2019, we opened the doors to a new crisis stabilization center, now known as the Anne Deacon Center for Hope. The programs at this new center more than double the capacity of the county’s former crisis center, providing better access to adults in need of mental health or withdrawal management services, helping them restore and stabilize their health. – and to avoid prison.
It’s not just better for them. It’s better for the stakeholders. It’s better for our community as a whole.
Now we have to improve the prison itself.
The reality is that not everyone can or should avoid prison. In cases where prison is necessary, we must use incarceration as an opportunity to provide comprehensive services to help inmates stabilize their lives, prevent future incarceration, and rejoin their communities safely and with purpose.
In 2022, the county council convened the Stakeholder Advisory Committee, which included members of the task force, to review and make recommendations for next steps.
This committee released recommendations that would continue our efforts to invest in community safety and well-being.
They determined that our community needed a new prison designed to reflect best safety practices for those who work and visit; a jail that has the ability to ease booking restrictions in the county and its cities.
And above all, a safe and humane prison for those incarcerated, with dignity and the support services needed to help prevent future incarceration.
Barry Buchanan is Chairman of Whatcom County Council and a member of the Prevention and Reduction of Incarceration Task Force. Stephen Gockley is a Bellingham resident and co-chair of the Prevention and Reduction of Incarceration Task Force.