When there is no more room to house criminals, crime starts to rise, at least in Bellingham and greater Whatcom County. In a recent report to the Bellingham City Council, Whatcom County Prosecutor Eric Richey told the council that crime incidents were on the rise in nearly every category. Aggravated assaults were up over 38%, robbery was up almost 68%, and motor vehicle thefts were up 59%.
Richey stated, “The 2021 [state] police reform legislation restricted police’s ability to investigate crime, arrest, pursue and support people getting treatment.” Richey posits that the spike in crimes may have something to do with a lack of jail space and an understaffed police force. For many crimes, “The limited (jail) space is making criminals realize they won’t have to face consequences.”
The Whatcom County Jail in Downtown Bellingham serves Whatcom County, the City of Bellingham, the small cities, as well as the tribal nations. Originally constructed in 1983, it was designed to hold 148 offenders, and by the mid ‘90s, the need for a much larger jail was made clear. Efforts since then to add capacity have repeatedly failed.
In November of 2017, Whatcom County voters rejected a one-tenth of one percent sales tax increase to support the construction of a new jail facility. Meanwhile, the jail has deteriorated significantly. The structure itself, security, and other factors have hampered the jail’s functionality and resulted in drastically reducing the number of offenders that can be incarcerated. Restrictions on bookings vary from day to day.
With COVID-19, jail capacity dropped again, and in early 2022, two elevators failed, with a replacement cost estimated at nearly $2 million.