Excellent article in the Cascadia Weekly by Staff Reporters Ralph Schwartz and Jenelle Baumbach explores Whatcom County’s controversial effort to build a new jail.
Homelessness, mental illness and substance use disorders have increased. This increase heavily impacts Whatcom County’s already overburdened jail. County leaders are planning a November ballot measure for construction of a new jail intend to address these problems head-on. Whatcom voters have proven fickle, however, having defeated two other jail levies since 2015.
By the official count and by all accounts, homelessness is on the rise in Whatcom County. The annual Point-in-Time count showed a 69% increase in people experiencing homelessness from 2012 to 2022. Homelessness is also the norm among inmates in jail, according to a 2022 survey by the Stakeholder Advisory Committee. The group showed at least 73% of surveyed inmates were either homeless or couch surfing with friends or family.
Journalist Ralph Schwartz reports that Whatcom County’s drug problem is just as visible. Fentanyl users smoke openly on Bellingham’s streets, usually pulling a blanket over their head to trap the vapors.
Fentanyl overdose deaths are rising exponentially: 15 in Whatcom in 2020 and 25 in 2021, according to a state Department of Health dashboard; and at least 48 in 2022, county Medical Examiner Allison Hunt said on Feb. 27. The fentanyl problem is worsened by inmates sneaking it into Whatcom County’s jail. Recent Drug overdoses have reportedly happened.
The crime rate rose 9.1% in Bellingham from 2020 to 2021. This is according to the latest Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs Crime in Washington annual report. A review of non-traffic crimes listed on the City of Bellingham’s crime statistics webpage shows a bigger jump in 2022: up 39% compared to 2021.
THE RAW DATA, STATEWIDE:
• Approximately 60% of people incarcerated in Washington state jails have substance use disorder.
•300,000 adults in Washington state have a serious mental illness.
• Nearly 23,000 people in Washington state are homeless, and approximately one in four of those people have a serious mental illness.
• The number of people needing services at Western or Eastern state hospitals increased from 996 in 2015 to 2,397 in 2022.
• In October 2022, there were 850 people in the state deemed incompetent to stand trial who were waiting for a bed at Western or Eastern state hospitals — a 142% increase from October 2021.
• Nationally, more than 2 million jail bookings a year are people with a serious mental illness. One in four people with a serious mental illness have been incarcerated at least once.
Jail is a terrible place. Please review my Making Bail legal guide and contact my office if you, a friend or family member are charged with a crime. Hiring an effective and competent defense attorney is the first and best step toward justice.