Proposed Whatcom County Jail

by Maddie Smith


The current Whatcom County jail in downtown Bellingham opened.


Oct. 1  The county executive formed a blue ribbon panel to address criminal justice issues. On 3/20/1997, the panel recommended a 750-bed minimum security facility be funded by a one-tenth of one percent sales tax.


Nov. 4  The County Council placed a levy on the general election ballot to collect a one-tenth of one percent sales tax (10 cents for every $100) to be used for juvenile detention facilities and jails. The levy failed; it received 41.64 percent of the vote. The council also placed an advisory vote on the ballot. A one-tenth of one percent sales tax (10 cents for every $100) would be used exclusively for criminal justice purposes. It also failed, receiving 41.77 percent of the vote.


Jun. 27  In 1993, the state of Washington required every county to form a Law and Justice Council. Jail management was one of the issues the state suggested the councils address. In 2000, the Jusice Council recommended a new jail be constructed. 


Nov. 4  The County Council placed a levy on the general election ballot to collect a one-tenth of one percent sales tax (10 cents for every $100). It was sold as a tax for new jail facilities, but not publicized was the fact the tax levy money could also be used for the existing jail. The levy passed with 61.72 percent of the vote.


Nov. 9  The County Council awarded a $7,467,285 contract to build a 150-bed minimum-security jail and triage center in the Irongate area with 14 beds for metal health-related and drug/alcohol-related needs. In 2021, the triage center was expanded to 32 beds, 16 for metal health-related needs and 16 for drug/alcohol-related needs.The total amended budget is $13,400,000.


Apr. 26  The County Council established the Jail Planning Task Force. The goal of the task force was to determine the size, location and funding for the new jail.

AugustDavid Camp reported in Whatcom Watch that 75 percent of levy tax approved in 2004 had been spent on the existing jail.


Apr. 10 The final report of the Jail Planning Task Force was delivered to the County Council. The task force recommened a 500-700 bed jail and a location positioned centrally in the county.

July  The county executive and sheriff created the Executive Jail Planning Work Group. Riley Sweeney requested work group minutes. The public records officer informed him that no minutes were taken at any of the meetings. 


Jan. 29  The County Council approved a contract with DLR Group of Omaho, NE, to provide planning a predesign for a new jail facility. The scope of work is in three phases: the first will include review and planning; phase two is the scoping process and budget evaluation; phase three concerns a review of the the 2010 draft environmental impact statement.

Jul. 9  The DLR Group contract was amended for soil and groundwater contamination assessment at a location near Ferndale. The site was a former hazardous waste landfill.

Nov. 26  The County Council approved the expenditure of $6,093,491 to purchase approximately 40 acres located at LaBounty and Sunset roads to construct a new county jail and sheriff’s headquarters. The property is located near Ferndale.


Sep. 30  A new contract was approved by the County Council with the DLR Group of Omaha, NE, to provide preliminary design and engineering services for the new county jail facility. The company recommended an 844-bed facility with a price tag of $150 million. 


Jun. 9  The County Council created the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force. The task force was designed to provide a continuum of services that reduces incarceration of individuals affected with mental illness and chemical dependency, and minimizes jail utilization by pretrial defendants. The task force is still functioning.

Nov. 3  The County Council placed a sales tax levy on the general election ballot: it would collect an additional one-tenth of one percent (10 cents for every $100) to be used for constructing and operating jail facilities. The levy failed: it receieved 48.58 percent of the vote.


Jun. 14  The County Council established a Jail Stakeholder Workgroup. The purpose was to address financial agreements required for development of a new jail, including the size and associated cost of the facility; the funding mechanism; and the allocation and funding for operating expenses. The last meeting was held on 5/5/2017; the cost of a new jail was estimated at $110 million.


Sep. 12  The county executive signed a jail-use agreement with Yakima County to house inmates transfered fromWhatcom County.

Nov. 3  The County Council placed on the general election ballot a sales tax levy to collect an additional one-tenth of one percent (10 cents for every $100) to be used for public safety and jail facilities. The levy failed: it received 41.36 percent of the vote.


In April, May and June, the County Council conducted a listening tour. The purpose was to provide citizens from every corner of Whatcom County the opportunity to share information, input and ideas for improving Whatcom County’s criminal justice system.


Apr. 23  The current project budget to improve the existing jail is $9,294,700. The money is for a building assessment and design, replacing fire alarms and control system, door and lock upgrades, fire detection and suppression upgrades, electrical and lighting system upgrades, pre-booking and constultation booths, and a position to manage construction-reated interruptions.

Dec. 3  The County Council established a Stakeholder Advisory Committee. The purpose was public health, safety and justice (jail) facility. The committee will solicit and collect community input during a needs assessment process.


Feb. 11  The County Council voted to increase the number of Stakeholder Advisory Committee members from 23 to 36. The first meeting was scheduled for March 16; it was cancelled and meetings postponed as of 4/22/2021.

Apr. 7  The jail-use agreement language with Yakima County was removed and the Kittitas County (Ellensburg) jail was added.


Maddie Smith is a recent WWU graduate interested in agriculture, water issues and environmental justice. She enjoys gardening, traveling and traversing Bellingham trails on her mountain bike.