Preventing Incarceration: A Different Approach

by Maddie Smith

Part 2
Whatcom County does not keep track of recidivism rates. When a formerly incarcerated person gets arrested again, they recidivate. This rate is used to keep track of people who have a history in the system and measure the efficacy of jails or jail alternative programs. 

Wendy Jones, Whatcom County’s Chief of Corrections, said that the county’s records management system does not have the capacity to run reports on recidivism. “We certainly give anecdotal success stories,” she said. (1)

Vanessa Martin, administrative manager for the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office, attributes the county’s lack of recidivism data to the decades-old data collection system. “We are working with very archaic systems,” she said. (2)

The case management system for the prosecutor’s office is from the 1980s. (3)

Martin said the county understands the importance of data gathering and is prioritizing system improvements. Departments within the county are slowly taking steps to upgrade their data collection systems, but transferring data from the old system to the new system is a complex, time-consuming process, she said. (4)

Marie Collins, the former treatment manager from Louisiana, said that not tracking recidivism data would behoove the county because it masks “familiar faces,” or people who are booked at the jail frequently. (5)

In Washington state, over 60 percent of people who served time in jail for misdemeanors were arrested again within three years after they were released, according to the Washington State Institute for Public Policy. The recidivism rate ranged between 65 and 62 percent in 2010-14. (6)

“We know that just continually incarcerating people almost never changes their behavior,” Jones said. (7)

Releasing nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders to alternative programs keeps costs down for the county and the city. In 2020, 237 defendants completed their sentences from their homes. Offenders have to pay a daily cost of $14.50 for their electronic home monitoring anklet. If they are convicted of an alcohol-related crime, they must also wear an anklet that detects alcohol consumption for a total cost of $25 daily. If they fall below the poverty line, the city pays for their ankle monitors, which cost the city of Bellingham less than $38,000 in 2020. (8, 9)

Had those defendants served their sentences at the Whatcom County Jail, the cost would have totaled over $910,000. (10)

Without alternative programs, the county would need to find space in a full-custody facility for inmates, said Jones. Extra jail space is a resource the county simply does not have right now. (11) Ten or 15 years ago, there was a waiting list for enrollment in alternative programs. The county no longer has a waiting list. If someone is eligible for an alternative program, they can enroll in one, she said. (12) 

“If we can get one person out of the criminal justice system by putting them into an alternative rather than having them sit upstairs, everybody wins,” Jones said from her office in the lower level of the jail facility. (13)

Incarceration Prevention
Jail alternative programs free up space in the jail and save money, but there are other options that avoid the criminal justice system all together. Diversion programs exist to support people to change their behaviors that might lead to crime. Sometimes, before they ever commit one.

In September 2019, the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office was awarded a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to fund the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program. (14) Vanessa Martin, administrative manager for the Whatcom County Prosecutor’s Office, is also the political appointee (15) for the LEAD program. She helped write the federal grant from the Department of Justice and a state grant for nearly $580,000, which was also awarded to Whatcom County’s LEAD program in March 2020 (16). After both of the grants, LEAD had a total funding of nearly $1.5 million (17), which was enough to get it up and running (18) without costing taxpayers a dime.

The LEAD program seeks to prevent incarceration by enrolling participants in treatment services for substance abuse before they commit a crime related to their addiction. (19) Arresting people repeatedly is not working for the individual and it is draining the county of resources. (20) “This program will provide a different path for them,” said Martin. (21) 

Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey has enthusiastically supported the LEAD program, according to Martin. (22) “I have been a prosecutor a long time and at some point, I began questioning whether our current laws and sentencing guidelines really help people stop committing crimes and protect the community,” said Richey in a press release. “I knew we needed to try something different.” (23)

Wendy Jones, Whatcom County’s Chief of Corrections, said she’s seen the same people put on work crews for substance offenses repeatedly for nearly 40 years. “As soon as they sober up, they’re great folks. They’re fun to be around, they work really hard, they try really hard, but they’re addicts,” she said. (24)

Jones and Martin agree that the road to recovery is long for people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol. The Sheriff’s Office encourages people to seek treatment, but Jones recognizes that treatment is difficult for addicts to begin and even harder for them to continue. (25) Long-term recovery is often preceded by multiple relapses. 

Criminal justice reform activist Lisa Daugaard began the LEAD program in Seattle in 2012. (26) Daugaard said she started a conversation with the Seattle Police Department and prosecutor’s office by asking, “What would be a better response than locking that person up, tearing their family apart and making it incredibly unlikely that they were going to be able to work and take care of themselves and their family in the future?” (27)

In 2015, the University of Washington did a study on Seattle’s LEAD program and found that, in the short term, LEAD participants were 60 percent (28) less likely to be arrested after beginning treatment. In the long term, participants were 58 percent (29) less likely to be arrested after two years of treatment when compared to other drug offenders who were not enrolled in LEAD.

Martin said that LEAD plans to collect data and run reports including a cost-benefit analysis once the program is established for several years (30). This analysis will take the population of Whatcom County Jail into account to see if there is a shift in incarceration rates after the program begins, she said. (31) 

Law enforcement and community partners added 127 names to the referral list since LEAD launched in September 2020. (32) An operational work group meets biweekly to determine if the individuals on the referral list are qualified to enroll in the LEAD program, which includes stakeholders from law enforcement, the prosecutor’s office, public defender’s office, attorneys, and members of the LEAD management team. (33)

The person or agency who/that made the referral is encouraged to be at the meeting to explain the reasoning for their referral indepth, said Martin. If they are not able to attend the meeting, they are asked to write a detailed memo to the work group to discuss. (34) 

Screening for Predatory Behavior
The prosecuting attorney’s office looks at the criminal history of the referrals and screens for predatory behavior. Individuals convicted of murder, kidnapping, first-degree arson, first-degree robbery, first-degree assault, first-degree unlawful possession of a firearm, and registered sex offenders are disqualified from LEAD. Individuals who are sentenced to prison are also disqualified because they won’t be in Whatcom County during their sentence. (35) 

Once an individual is approved for LEAD, one of the five (36) intensive case managers begins outreach to contact them. Case managers often work with law enforcement and the Opportunity Council’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) to locate LEAD members who are homeless. (37) 

Case managers go to the LEAD client, which is often the Lighthouse Mission’s Base Camp, or the jail. They inform their client that they have been approved for the LEAD program and ask if they would like to participate. 

“It’s about meeting that individual where they’re at,” said Martin. (38)

If the client says no, they remain on the list and the case manager checks in with them periodically to ask them again. It’s important to keep individuals on the list so their case manager can provide support if and when they are ready to take the first step, said Martin. 

Once they get a yes, case managers connect the client with services ranging from health care, housing, getting an ID, and substance abuse treatment at their own pace. Of the 127 names on the referral list, 42 clients (39) are receiving services through LEAD as of March 23. Many individuals are still in outreach status, meaning case managers are tracking them down with the help of community partners. 

Case managers help to enroll clients in substance abuse treatment on an individual basis. (40) Once they meet up with the clients, they ask them if they are ready to receive treatment or any of the other services they can connect them with. When clients are ready to receive treatment, case managers work with the facility to support their clients throughout the treatment process. (41) 

If a LEAD member stabilizes, they still check in with their case manager as frequently as they like. The program is “LEAD for life.” Martin said. (42)

Limited space (43) in treatment facilities is a barrier for the LEAD program, said Martin. Case managers must navigate these barriers while supporting their clients. If someone is ready for treatment, the treatment facility might not be ready for them. Clients could have to wait several weeks for a spot to open up. When this happens, there is a risk that the client may not be ready by the time the facility is ready for them. They need to lean on their case managers during the waiting period to lessen that risk. 

“Direct support is so critical during that waiting period,” said Martin. (44) 

LEAD matches people with familiar faces to support them in shifting their substance abuse behaviors. In doing so, the diversion program hopes to turn the idea of “familiar faces in the system” on its head by avoiding jail all together.

1.Wendy Jones 23:45

2.Vanessa Martin interview 34 mins:

3.Vanessa Martin

4.Vanessa Martin 35 mins

5.Marie Collins 14:45

6.Washington State Adult and Juvenile Recidivism trends:

7.Wendy Jones 27 mins

8.Bellingham Municipal Court first quarterly report:

9.Raylene Heutink interview:

10.Electronic Home Monitoring table by Bill McCallum in this issue of Whatcom Watch

11.Wendy Jones 24 mins

12.Wendy Jones 1 hr 1 min

13.Wendy Jones 24 mins

14.Vanessa Martin 3 mins

15.Vanessa Martin 1:50

16.Vanessa Martin 4 mins

17.Vanessa Martin 4:10

18.Vanessa Martin 4:15

19.Vanessa Martin 8:15

20.Vanessa Martin 26:45

21.Vanessa Martin 27 mins

22.Vanessa Martin 1:30


24.Wendy Jones 25:10

25.Wendy Jones 25:30


27. 0:50

28.   page 2

29. page 3

30.Vanessa Martin 29:20

31.Vanessa Matin 32:30

32.Vanessa Martin interview 2 2:30:

33. Vanessa Martin interview 2 4 mins

34. Vanessa Martin interview 2 5:15


36. Vanessa Martin pt 2- 2 mins

37. Vanessa Martin pt 2 6:45

38. Vanessa Martin pt 2 7:45

39. Vanessa Martin pt 2 9:50

40. Vanessa Martin p 2 21 min

41. Vanessa Martin pt 2 24:15

42. Vanessa Martin 2 8:30

43. Vanessa Martin p 2 18:45

44. Vanessa Martin p 2 19:45


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.