‘Try to bring the numbers down with change’: Whatcom County justice stakeholders highlight need for services / Noisy Waters Northwest

January 6, 2023 Dena Jensen

The latter portion of this post contains the more detailed remarks, which included the statement in the graphic on this post, that were made at the 12/15/22 Justice Project Stakeholder Advisory Committee meeting by the Director of Whatcom County’s Public Defender’s Office Starck Follis. 

In a couple weeks, the Stakeholder Advisory Committee for Whatcom County’s Justice Project will be holding what may be their final meeting. It is at least designated as the meeting centered around the final Needs Assessment for services and any facilities (including a county jail) deemed essential to be included in a sales tax ballot measure for the November 2023 election. Here is the email address where people can provide input or ask questions of the SAC: sac@co.whatcom.wa.us 

The meeting previous to this was held last month on December 15, where the Draft Needs Assessment was discussed and modified, with committee members opting to continue modifications in the interim before this upcoming 1/19/23 meeting. Here is a link to the Draft Needs Assessment as it was presented to the SAC on 12/15/22: https://www.whatcomcounty.us/DocumentCenter/View/71196/SAC-Needs-Assessment-Draft—11-21-2022

Most prominently, in my perspective, is that the needs assessment process has spent considerable time identifying the vast absences in our community of behavioral/mental health and justice-related services and the gaps in existing ones. Directly in the face of that, there are still some members of the SAC and letters sent from all Whatcom County Mayors which have pressed to prioritize and expedite a new jail with increased incarceration capacity above all else. 

Meanwhile, many additional perspectives have been provided by the various stakeholders serving on the SAC and community members who have been involved in some degree with the SAC process. 

You can catch up on all of this by accessing this link on the Whatcom County website. The page offers you past meeting materials that include videos of the meetings, as well as additional links to public comments made during the process, County Council’s 2018 Listening Tour related to this subject, and the Justice Project main page: https://www.whatcomcounty.us/3352/SAC-Meetings-and-Additional-Information

Also, here is a link to some blog posts dating back as far as 2015 and continuing up to the present related to the pursuit of a new Whatcom County Jail: https://noisywatersnw.com/tag/whatcom-county-jail/

The following is input that was given at the 12/15/22 SAC meeting by Starck Follis which serves to continue to highlight the significant deficit in critical services our County is operating with and that our community members are suffering under (link to the portion of the meeting recording where these remarks were made:  https://youtu.be/jUe8zDgQZeg?t=4879 ):

“You know we’ve been looking at some alternative ways to approach what we do. And I think, in general, it’s sort of a move toward a more holistic approach to defense work, where it’s not just all based on getting a case and preparing it for trial and so on and so forth. 

“We want to move it more in a direction of engaging people and servicing the community and transitioning them from the jail to housing, and you know, basically the whole gamut.

“We’ve looked at a couple different solutions to that. One was, we had sought a couple extra behavioral health specialist positions. We have two currently. And I learned just this week that one of them at least, if not both of them, are feeling terribly overwhelmed with the workload in our office. 

“We weren’t able to bring that about in our budget request this year, but I think that there’s going to be a look at it, ongoing. And it may – that may be implemented at some point in the future.

“The other thing that we looked at and talked about was a private organization called Partners for Justice that, you know, our – you know, I guess the best phrase for them would be a navigator or a facilitator. But basically, that would involve the County entering into a contract with this non-profit organization to house a couple folks in our office that would, you know, really approach our clients and particularly the ones in jail in a very encompassing fashion. 

“You know, when we met with them and we met with some organizations that are using them, one of the examples that sort of stuck out to me was, these people – even assist in things like getting the dog, their dog out of the Humane Society for them, so they don’t lose their dog while they’re in jail. You know, I mean, I don’t point to that specifically, but, you know, that is sort of the universal service that Partners for Justice would possibly provide to us. 

“As I’ve said before, you know, that to me, reduction of numbers is the key. It’s the key to our office; it’s the key to the prosecutor’s office; it’s the key to the jail. And if we can somehow bring the numbers down, it dramatically affects all the County organizations and municipal organizations that are engaged in this. And you know, frankly, it helps the victims of crime too, because if the numbers come down, there are less victims; there are less crimes being committed. 

“And you know, that’s the approach that we’re advocating. And, you know, and I think that essentially reflects a realization that, you know, what we’ve been doing over the last however many decades, you know, hasn’t been working very well. And I had to kind of resist the temptation to engage in the accountability discussion that was going on earlier, because, you know, frankly, I’m not so sure how excited people are to hear my perspective on accountability. 

“But I could tell you, as sure as I sit here, that, you know: A. There are people who belong in jail, that need to be segregated from society to keep society safe – but B. The idea that a little bit of jail time is going to change anything is absurd. You know, we did that with low level drug possession cases for decades. And we gave people 30, 60, 90, 120 – you know, however many days in jail, and it affected nothing. I mean, they were high the minute they got back on the street. And there was no accountability. It was just – it accomplished nothing. 

“And I think that the direction I would like to take our office in is a different direction to simply incarcerating people, and try to bring the numbers down with change. And so that’s what we propose. I’m all for beefing up our services, but I think they oughta be beefed up in a little bit more progressive fashion that simply just giving us more attorneys or more investigators and telling us to take more cases to trial – I don’t think that’s really the solution.”