Whatcom County to spend $1.2 million this year to incarcerate people in Snohomish County

Sue Misao / The Herald/Courtesy to The Bellingham Herald
·5 min read

Whatcom County will spend roughly $1.2 million over the next several months to house up to 45 people in the Snohomish County Jail — a move officials say is necessary due to a lack of available space to book and safely house people in the Whatcom County Jail.

At its Tuesday night meeting on Aug. 9, the Whatcom County Council approved a $1.2 million contract with Snohomish County that allows Whatcom to use up to 45 beds to incarcerate people at the Snohomish County Jail in Everett. The funding request, which was initially introduced in mid-June, was included as part of an ordinance amending the county budget by more than $4 million for various items and services.

Tuesday’s council vote, which passed 6 to 1, with Ben Elenbaas voting no, authorizes the county executive to enter into the contract with Snohomish. The contract authorization was passed as part of the consent agenda.

The $1.2 million, which is coming out of the Whatcom County Jail fund, will pay for booking, housing and medical fees that Whatcom will have to pay for the inmates transferred to Snohomish.

While the contract approved Tuesday goes through Dec. 31, 2023, the $1.2 million will only cover costs for the rest of this year, according to Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Corrections Chief Wendy Jones.

The sheriff’s office submitted its initial budget request Wednesday of $3.3 million to cover the expenses of incarcerating inmates in Snohomish County in 2023, Jones said in an interview with The Bellingham Herald. A decision on the total amount of funding approved for the 2023 portion of the contract won’t occur until later, she said.

“We find ourselves in a very difficult position and we need to take some of the steam off and move some of the inmates to another jail facility that can better accommodate them,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said in an interview with The Herald.

The decision to incarcerate people in Snohomish County was borne out of a set of cascading issues facing the county’s criminal legal system that officials said left them with no choice but to find an alternative place to house inmates.

As of late July, the population incarcerated at the county jail and the Work Center on Division Street has increased by roughly 29%, according to county council documents. Both Elfo and Jones said that the population does not seem to be decreasing, despite enhanced booking restrictions limiting who can be booked into jail.

The needs of the people incarcerated in the jail have also increased, they said. Nearly half of the inmates have been diagnosed with a serious mental illness and many of them are also battling substance use disorders, according to council documents. In addition, due to behavioral issues, roughly one-fifth of the downtown jail population has to be housed alone, resulting in 35 beds that can no longer be used, the county documents state.

The jail’s medication-assisted treatment program for people experiencing opioid use disorder has also grown rapidly in the past year, Jones and Elfo said.

The limited operations of the county’s court system during the COVID-19 pandemic led in part to a backlog of court cases that officials are still working through, meaning lengthier wait times for defendants to get their cases resolved and longer stays for people incarcerated.

Nearly all of the people incarcerated in Whatcom County are pre-trial, meaning they have not been convicted of the crime they’re accused of and their case is moving through the court system. Many of the inmates are also facing felony charges, documents show.

“Without their cases getting resolved, we have no way of moving offenders to their next destination, be that the community or to the Washington State Department of Corrections. That translates to no room for new offenders,” Jones wrote in the budget request to the county council for the Snohomish contract.

People incarcerated in the jail are also facing long wait times to be admitted to a state psychiatric hospital for competency restoration treatment, Jones said.

As of late, the average wait time for someone who has a court order to receive competency restoration services at one of the state’s two psychiatric hospitals is around 12 to 18 weeks, Jones said. State officials recently told her that for anyone the court signs a competency restoration treatment order for from late July forward will likely not receive a bed until 2023, she said.

All of these issues combined led sheriff’s department and county officials to begin exploring options outside Whatcom County for incarcerating people, Elfo said.

The county has a current contract with Kittitas County to house inmates, but it isn’t practical due to weather and road conditions in the mountains and staffing shortages, Elfo and Jones said.

Skagit County said it didn’t have the capacity to accept inmates from Whatcom, so officials then approached Snohomish County, Elfo said.

Whatcom will likely begin transferring inmates to Snohomish County beginning in September, Jones said. Most of the people sent south will be pre-trial and facing lower level charges, but they won’t be people who need high security or have high medical needs, she said.

“Basically, we really had no other choice. The jail has a finite amount of space,” Jones said.

The sheriff’s department is aware of the impact incarcerating a person outside of the county they live in can have on an inmate’s family or friends, Jones said. Snohomish has video visitation services, which she said she hopes people use.

Elfo echoed her statements, saying that while the move to Snohomish isn’t ideal, it’s what’s needed because the downtown jail facility is outdated and presents life-safety issues.

“So Snohomish is not convenient for anyone, but it’s more convenient than Kittitas and it’s a better option than having people in unsafe and dangerous conditions,” Elfo said.