Rethinking Criminal Justice Reform

As the United States continues to jail people at a rate higher than any other country in the world, community stakeholders from public safety, social services, local government and community health are taking action to reform our local criminal justice system through Whatcom County’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Taskforce.

Mass incarceration has created a school-to-prison pipeline that tears parents away from their children, jails nonviolent offenders for too long and locks up people of color at a disproportionate rate–a statistic that is not only represented nationally, but also at our local jail. In an effort to curtail excessive incarceration, the taskforce is charged with recommending to the Whatcom County Council solutions for behavioral health treatment, a new triage center and new legal and justice programs. If we could improve our criminal justice system, how would we do it and what would it look like?

Beyond the more narrow discussions of immediate incarceration prevention and reduction in our local jail, several taskforce members have been examining long-term, generational measures as a guiding element of reform.

That process has led to big-picture conversations: Are we too late by the time an individual has already entered the criminal justice system as an adult (or a juvenile, for that matter)? What if we were able to help people cope with addiction and provide better access to mental health services, rather than locking them up in jail? What could be the long-term impact of investments in early childhood development and youth intervention?

For more than a year, as your Bellingham City Council’s representative on the taskforce, I’ve traveled across the state to meet with judges, public defenders, prosecutors, police and social service providers in Seattle, Spokane, Everett, and Shoreline. Everett has developed a program that addresses “high utilizers of systems:” people who come into contact with police, fire, courts and the emergency room far more often than average citizens. Shoreline has a program that could reduce or eliminate deadly use of force situations by providing officers with individualized information about people with mental health illness who may come into contact with police.

Seattle has its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program that works to rid the system of the “arrest, incarcerate, release, repeat” cycle for low-level, nonviolent drug and prostitution offenses.

It is essential that communities across Washington state look at strategies and policies at all levels—from “upstream” interventions that support struggling families and youth—especially those who are traditionally underserved—to “downstream” solutions like re-entry housing and employment programs. Mental health and substance use treatment, including beds, facilities and programs, must be a priority at every level of government. And we must be clear that many solutions will exist outside of any reforms we make in our criminal justice system and fall more in the realms of public health, social services, housing and jobs.

There are no shortage of problems: Due to overcrowding and booking restrictions enacted by the Whatcom County Sheriff, Bellingham is often forced to send its inmates to Yakima, which causes a new complexity to the process while posing a strain on families of offenders and those awaiting trial. A 141-bed regional substance-use disorder treatment center in Sedro-Woolley is scheduled to close in 2018 without guarantee of replacement. Bellingham’s low-vacancy housing market persists, often keeping both victims and released or diverted offenders from obtaining stable housing.

These challenges perpetuate the cycle we are trying to overcome.

Amid these issues, Bellingham has become a regional leader in providing diversion through Electronic Home Monitoring for low-level, carefully screened nonviolent offenders. This program saved Bellingham taxpayers more than $300,000 since the beginning of 2016, and helped reduce Bellingham’s misdemeanant population in the downtown jail by 25 percent.

Last year, the city’s funding for housing and social services totaled more than $10 million. Bellingham is moving in the right direction on prevention, intervention and diversion, but we must do even more.

In thinking about new ways to tackle the problem through regional information sharing and cooperation, we can continue to turn the corner and move in the right direction, reducing victimization and helping individuals and families to flourish outside of incarceration.


This op-ed was printed in the Cascadia Weekly on March 29, 2017.