Monday, October 19, 2015

To win us to our harm

"To win us to our harm": An expository on whether we should build a new a jail in Whatcom County.

Blessed are the merciful: for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart: for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers: for they will be called children of God.
Jesus Christ Matthew 5:3–12

And oftentimes, to win us to our harm,
The instruments of darkness tell us truths,
Win us with honest trifles, to betray's
In deepest consequence.
Macbeth”, William Shakespeare 1605

Financing our own Social Destruction?

The Whatcom County jail project is enormous in scope and cost. As County Executive candidate Joy Gilfilen points out, it is the most expensive public project in Whatcom County history. The current bonding proposals that will appear on your ballot as “Whatcom County Proposition N. 2015-1 Jail Facilities and Sales and Use Tax” will ensure significant interest costs for the 1/10 of 1% infrastructure bond designed for payoff in 30 years or the life of the bond. Since the jail already receives 1/10 of 1% (passed in 2004) and you will be voting on whether to give the jail a third 1/10% of 1% . The 2/10ths of 1% will run on forever even after the the first infrastructure bond is paid off, costing hundreds of millions of sales tax dollars. CPA David Camp has projected data on those costs here. Whatcom County has projections on the sales tax amounts in this presentation here. These 3/10% of 1% will be dedicated only to public safety issues. In reality, these combined bonding measures will assure a pot of gold for WC Jail for both operations and expansion well after most of us are either infirm or dead; unchecked by any county council limitations of the general fund.

Some of the supporting candidates have tried to remark that since Canadians pay large amount of sales tax in Whatcom County, the citizens of Whatcom County will be less taxed. I find this argument specious, especially given the historical flip and flop of the dollar vs. loonie. It's good times when the Canadians shop here in Whatcom County. If history is any guide, one day soon they might just decide to stop for some long while. There are hundreds of millions of dollars spent in WA state on law and justice and associated social services. One of these is an $800M - the GF-S corrections fund that Olympia returns to the counties. Most counties do not return a surplus of general fund revenue to Olympia. In reality, most law and justice colonies in WA live off the $2.3B of excess GF-S revenues Seattle returns unused to Olympia. Whatcom and Skagit County do not however. Oil fund revenues usually leave both counties in the black when subtracting GF-S revenues from expenditures. Too bad those excess revenues can't be saved directly for county expenses. But perhaps law and justice colonies like Pierce or Yakima county need Whatcom county GF-S revenue more than we do.

There may be at least two other financial bear traps that await cities who bond jail infrastructure. Due to a series of federal finance legislation after the 'great recession' , bond holders now have some legal rights to strip your city of assets, pensions, other funds if you default on your bonds. Most of the audience who is reading this post is sophisticated enough to understand global bond markets. The vendors who service your municipal bonds won't be your local bank and neither will their clients (e.g. the bond holders). All finance is internationalized now. Once the boys and girls of big finance can't get their money repaid, they come after your city assets with a vengeance. This process has created enormous legal struggles happening in Detroit, Stockton, and other municipalities that are in or surviving bankruptcy. Bond risk has now been legitimized into social-economic risk for municipalities, specifically it creates a struggle over what creditors have rights to your city's pension fund in case of bond default.

A potentially worse fate awaits those cities who build expensive jails but can't maintain them: privatization. Across the nation, this scenario is playing out with privatization of jail systems: Some small town or municipality decides law and order is their savior. They build a huge prison. They sink themselves into debt or operating expenses they can't maintain. Private prison firms, now often restructured at REITs take advantage of tax laws, buy the corrections property (which returns the value of previously tax exempt property to the municipality) and runs the prison. The criticism of this process is not the upfront financial deal which often saves the over-extended municipality. A profit driven jail system needs customers (e.g. “the jailed”) to keep income returning to their investors. Some national analysts think these economics are part of what is keeping prisons full despite nationwide declines in crime.

Our “Color Blind” Justice System

"Blacks and Hispanics are significantly more likely than whites to be arrested for possession and sale of marijuana and to receive a conviction and criminal record, even though the majority of marijuana users are non-Hispanic whites," Zuckerberg wrote. "Almost 40% of prisoners are black. More than half the people entering prison live below the poverty line." His conclusion? "Our entire society pays the price for an unfair, broken system." Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg on Mass Incarceration 10/14/2015 editor note:Mark  Zuckerberg was inspired to help organize programs that teach convicts programming after reading Michelle Alexander's “The New Jim Crow”.
"The hypersegregation of the black poor in ghetto communities has made the roundup easy. Confined to ghetto areas and lacking political power, the black poor are convenient targets. ... The enduring racial isolation of the ghetto poor has made them uniquely vulnerable in the War on Drugs. What happens to them does not directly affect—and is scarcely noticed by—the privileged beyond the ghetto’s invisible walls. Thus it is here, in the poverty-stricken, racially segregated ghettos, where the War on Poverty has been abandoned and factories have disappeared, that the drug war has been waged with the greatest ferocity. SWAT teams are deployed here; buy-and-bust operations are concentrated here; drug raids of apartment buildings occur here; stop-and-frisk operations occur on the streets here. Black and brown youth are the primary targets.” -Michelle Alexander "The New Jim Crow" 

The cost to society of making mistakes with law and justice policy has proved beyond our limited comprehension as citizens. Some criminal scholars now believe that we have created an unstoppable apartheid and 'criminogenic' law and justice system designed to punish the poor; a self perpetuating "jobs program" for white law enforcement to terrorize people of color and poverty. Criminal Justice scholars like Rutgers Provost Todd Clear talks openly of the lack of correlation between imprisonment and crime reduction, quoting large and small scale studies that have many scholars believing that the practice of imprisoning others for crime may have a negative or inverse relationship to public safety. Dr. Clear's work focuses on how the misguided practice of mass incarceration in the United States has left poor communities bereft of income, health, family and parents; a process that is clearly destroying both family and community across the United States.

I myself believe our current level of bookings in Whatcom County is encouraging gang creation; turning young men of color and poverty in our community into desperate, sullen monsters. Lost young men need community and prosperity more than the guiding hand of the local narco lord or cartel. But if you keep locking up young men, the cartels will know. And come they will for all our lost souls. How do I know this? My father was a high school teacher and coach in east Oakland for 34 years. At least four generations on each side of my family are from Oakland, CA. My wife and I abandoned our home city of Oakland, CA thirteen years ago, in part because of Oakland's terrible social, economic, and justice failures. Oakland spends hundreds of millions of dollars on law and justice every year and has done so for many years now. You can't blame those who have lived and still live in Oakland for supporting their robust law and justice infrastructure. You can ask however, whether or not the war on drugs has been waged effectively or whether the militarization of the police in Oakland CA helped solve the problem of crime. The first time you hit the concrete while automatic gunfire strafes the airspace above you triggers a deep and primal fear. You want immediately to support more funding for police, jail, three strikes, prisons. But some thirty years later, cities like Oakland and the state of California literally heave under the weight of their law and justice budgets. The prison expenses for the state of California run to 7% of the state's budget. That figure, of course, does not include any other local spending on law and justice.

After all these years of funding, narcotics driven crime in cities like Oakland rages on unabated. Oakland's homicide yearly totals nearly match the entire homicide volumes of the WA state, whose population is 7M with about 18K total in jails and prisons. In fact, scholars and commentators have concluded that prisons  in and out of CA (pop=39M) is not just a budget busting expense, but a breeding and training ground for more crime. Mass incarceration is by nature a 'criminogenic' phenomena. That is to say, the act of incarcerating more people induces more people to become incarcerated. The gangs on the inside recruit for gangs on the outside. Many felons can only find work in a destroyed job market by engaging in more felonies. In summary, law and justice infrastructure creates the need for more law and justice infrastructure. This cycle of continuing increase in incarceration that has 181K in prison and jails in California has been very good for the prison building and prison service industry. It has also helped absorb unemployed veterans who are returning for war and looking for work in law enforcement. But it hasn't necessary helped the general liberty and prosperity of the populace. Nor is there any solid evidence to suggest it has made our nation safer.

Instead many scholars have concluded that most of law and justice across the nation is not only failing to create a more prosperous society, but is actively creating an unjust, unequal, racially apartheid nightmare. These are the conclusions of scholars and activists that study crime like Todd Clear, Michelle Alexander, Ruth Wilson Gilmore. Are we supposed to wait for our "Ferguson Moment" before we wake up and address these problems here in Whatcom County? Crime is a social problem primarily created by unequal distribution of wealth. The problem of crime requires careful social planning. During a recent LWV forum, Councilmen Satpal Sidhu summed up Whatcom County's budget with words like these: “The truth of our budget is that more than 60% goes to law and justice, 25% to roads, and remaining 15% is available for everyone to argue over!” You can be assured that Whatcom County high law and justice expenses are mirrored across “law and justice colonies” across the state. At 60% of the county budget, law and justice has enough funding to create real, bipartisan analysis of the impacts of law and justice infrastructure on the safety and social and economic inequality of our community. I fear that thirty years from now, when the first construction bond (1/10 of 1%) is paid off that my children will be living in the same theater of crime and racially based law enforcement from which my wife and I escaped. The costs of effective planning and with many different inputs would be well worth it in this case. This analysis needs wide community input unbiased by economic prospects.

A number of documents [1,2,3] on jail planning have been published on the county website. Some of them are crude, spreadsheet like forecasts. But none of these efforts represent true modeling. A model would be composed of sets of functions (code) which would allow multiple assumptions and return results that would allow multiple parties to simulate what inputs (e.g number of arrests, pop growth, type of population, gross household income) would lead to what outputs (types of crime, crime levels, types of bookings, recidivism rates, single family households, etc.) . There would be separate models tied to finance and revenue for all the stakeholders. Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville was explicitly looking for a different financing model than county executive Jack Louws offered. County council member Rud Browne proposed more research and study. County Council member Ken Mann vociferously asked the community and the council for more time to study the problem of incarceration in Whatcom County but admitted publicly, “I do not have the votes to do this.”. Many of us question long term ('in perpetuity') sales tax for operations expense as opposed to general fund financing which could leave the council in a better position to act as a discretionary body that could more easily 'cap' spending on law and justice in line with other budget priorities, especially those that might create wages and income.

The modeling process itself should take input from all members of the community including racial groups like African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics whose populations which are currently 'overrepresented' (some dramatically) in our jail as compared to their census populations in our county. All of these potential factors could be 'modeled' to simulate results and costs. Once you had a collection of simulations we could use methodological arguments to choose the models that we feel are the most powerful and accurate. I suspect law and justice research may not properly know the difference between forecasting and modeling. It is unclear to me whether law and justice in this county has been tasked with doing social and economic modeling that would help prevent crime. What literally seems to happen is that politicians and support staff send out best guess proposals to the voters and hope their proposals work as approved. If greater efforts at forecasting, modeling, simulation were made, it would help improve the confidence of activists like myself who think government has become a kind of amorphous, arbitrary force lacking proper oversight and data analysis.

So what does Law and Justice do with $56M? $123M? per year in Whatcom County anyway?

Working with the existing inmate databases this summer was an ugly and painful experience. The terms in either database were not sufficiently standardized from year to year to be useful without lots of normalization. The existing categories of crime are not exclusive or hierarchical. The unique ids only cover part of any individual's history of bookings. To circumvent these issues, I used term mining to define crime, constructed name tuples as unique ids, and categorized term counts to understand the last five years of crime as it has passed through Whatcom County Jail. Whatever data and conclusions I made did little to reassure my confidence that law and justice is functioning with intelligence in Whatcom County. I will be frank. If there is a working SQL or R programmer inside law and justice in Whatcom County, I would like to know what exactly they are doing with their time.

If indeed, as council member Satpal Sidhu noted at the recent LWV forum, law and justice is 60% of our entire county budget each year then .6 * $204,955,782 = $123M for 2015. However, that number is hard to pin down. What the 2015 budget tells us is 61.62% of $91,587,495 (not dedicated) general fund is for law and justice. That would be .6162 * 91587495 = $56M  When I scoured through the detailed 2015 County budget, I found that 12 of the 22 listed departments had some aspect of law and justice or crime prevention:
  • County Clerk
  • District Court Probation
  • Extension
  • Juvenile Court Administration
  • Health and Human Services
  • Prosecuting Attorney
  • Non Departmental
  • Public Defender
  • County Sheriff
  • Sheriff – Jail
  • Superior Court
The funds dedicated for all things law and justice in this county would be difficult to summarize. Even $56M should be enough money to engage in some serious modeling especially for long term criminal infrastructure projects like a new jail. In truth, there is a lot of law and justice money in Washington State and in Whatcom County. On top of the WC Sheriff and WC Jail budget, there are police budgets for Bellingham, Ferndale, Blaine, Lynden and all the other small cities. There are tribal police. And then there is that lot of acronyms that police our border with Canada. In his last election, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo described 1,000 federal agents in Whatcom County. There is also a Washington State Patrol headquarters near the airport. Whatcom County, despite its international I-5 traffic, is still a county of less than 215,000 lonely citizens perched up on the edge of nowhere, trying to find an identity that creates comfort for everyone but doesn't constrain the individualism in most of us. Some years, it doesn't seem like we are doing a particularly good job at this. Call us the law enforcement laden, identity anxious ridden corner of the Pacific Northwest.

There has been lots of discussion about mental illness, homelessness,drug addiction and some gang issues (raised primarily by the Sheriff Bill Elfo) surrounding the 6500 or so bookings in Whatcom County each year. But in reality, when I examined what data was available, I saw a much different picture of what drives so many into Whatcom County jail. Admittedly, there was no or little data I could find on bookings related to mental illness, homelessness and drug addiction . I did not look at data that discussed alternatives or diversions. What I found was something different: jail bookings in Whatcom County are mostly driven by two “criminogenic” cycles: DUI/DWLS and Assault 4 DV/Violation of Non Contact Order. The first cycle starts with one of 1000 or so arrests each year booked into Whatcom County for DUI. But it often doesn't end there as the perpetrator commits additional DUIs, is compelled to drive and it caught driving under the influence, often to have his mobility hobbled by an suspended license. 

The second cycle usually starts with a domestic dispute. Generally the male is arrested for a gross misdemeanor (Assault 4 DV) and perhaps an NCO ("non contact order'), which when violated results in an additional arrest. These two cycles and their concomitant FTA (“failure to appear”) arrests create between 40% - 50% ofall bookings in Whatcom County Jail, as far as I could tell. Both cycles are laden with recidivism. Evidence of narcotics usage and the various forms of theft, burglary, robbery and property crime that are associated with drug use streams through the inmate database as well. But strangely, I did not see activity that would indicate "900 gang members and associates in 31 gangs”. Our violent crime is still very low in comparison to other cities. I won't doubt the Sheriff's discussion of gangs in Whatcom County. But I ducked and dodged bullets and gangs for the first forty years of my life. This isn't Oakland, CA. With our four or five murders per year in Bellingham and Whatcom County, perhaps only Bellevue is a safer place to live in WA state.

Are we destroying communities of poverty and color with incarceration in Whatcom County?

Looking backward on my life growing up in east Oakland, I know what saved me. I know what gave me a more resourced, more fortunate life than the young black kids who lived in the HUD housing project at the bottom of my block. I knew what those bitter, blank stares from young children were about. Because family saved me. The Catholic church in all its glory and faults saved me. Both created the stable, cohesive environment that encouraged community, education, career. I worked hard to be a golden Catholic boy when I was young. It was and probably still is related to some long lost dogmatic Polish intellectual streak passed down from my grandfather, whose own father fled his homeland to America from what then was an eastern Poland being overrun by an anti-Catholic Russian czar. When I fell or even staggered just a little in my life, someone propped me up to keep me from falling farther. Even today at age 53, when I falter my family props me up. 

But for many families living in poverty, those someones have been eliminated from their neighborhoods through the attrition of poverty, mass incarceration, divorce, an outsourced jobs market or just plain alienation from the dominant (racist) culture. Possibly, the influence of cartels and the narcotics industry have destroyed their lives. As introverted an intellectual as I could be, it would have been to easy to become lost without family and community. My father, a 34 year high school teacher and athletic coach in east Oakland, once pulled me aside to show me a study done on the junior high feeder to the an east Oakland high school . The study showed more than 50% of the students coming from the junior high (upon entering 10th grade) lived with neither their father or mother. “You see Ryan. When I pull guns out of kid's hands. When I stop fights. When I control my classroom. This,” he said slapping the study on a table, “ is the reason why I have deal with that .”

I don't mean to project the vestiges of whatever Polish Catholic social conservatism still lives in inside me. But whatever solutions we take in solving the problems of those lost in poverty and crime, we must in all moments strive to keep those families intact inside the cultural mores dominant and traditional for them. We must show mercy and forgiveness in the face of mistakes and cultural decisions that don't fit our so politically correct middle class values. Because it will be the strength of their families that keep poor communities resourced and unified. Many of us don't appreciate the traditional family mores that got us where we needed to be when we become middle class and educated. Each next generation of Americans doesn't want to look back and remember the sacrifices their families made to achieve wealth. Most of those sacrifices required compromise, and deprivation, not some middle class, narcissistic, expression of fulfillment or educational attainment. In all cases, it is always better to keep those communities of color and poverty, united and available as resources to each other no matter how flawed they might be, then to destroy them through incarceration. Too often what awaits men from broken families of color and poverty in the global economy is a vicious and short-lived career in narcotics trafficking; a career that takes fine young men from once loving families and turns them by screws at once long and short into rogue wolves. To avoid this fate in the global economy we live in now, men in particular need families to protect and families that protect them.

What Reality Looks Like

The next few paragraphs will hard for many of you to read. Skip them if you need to you, I won't be mincing words. It would be tempting to believe that the fine high quality of neighborhood life we enjoy in Whatcom County is somehow indicative of reality, of what the world really looks like. Such a thought would be illusory.

The reality of most of the world's clustered urban centers looks far different than Bellingham. In Oakland, a highway (580) divides the land that is safe to walk in during the day from that which is not. (Just forget about where it is safe to walk at night.) Real estate values, insurance rates, crime rates, and some say police protection all change for the better and more expensive as you move eastward toward the hills from this highway. The converse change happens in the other direction. Imagine, if you will, that all the neighborhoods west of I-5 were crime ridden and could be divided into various zones perhaps designated by the type of gunfire you might encounter walking through them: M class automatic weapons, full Uzi, sub Uzi, handgun only. As a child growing up in these environments you would learn the gradations carefully. You would know when you could walk somewhere and for how long. And while walking, you would always search for the signs, not just the obvious Uzi hanging out the car window, but those immeasurable signs (the wrong look, the wrong collection of men, something ineffable that signaled danger) and by these signs you would know how to vary your route to avoid thugs, knives, gunfire or a bleed out on the street. Eventually, these skills just become part of who you are. And if you could protect yourself by these observations alone, you would be less traumatized; more of the good inside would be preserved. But, of course, no one can protect themselves by observation alone.

As you mature into your teen years, you realize your safety is assured not just by your intelligence or intuition, but by your own ability to cultivate the violence of the street inside of you, to develop your own sense of 'blood lust'; your own ability to intimidate others as needed. This isn't something you think much about as you mature as a young man. You simply just learn to “bring it” as needed. And there is a culture that helps you get there: lots of time on the basketball courts, football practice, lots of time in the weight room. You understand quickly an extra twenty pounds of muscle is a useful prerequisite for your survival. Every high school and neighborhood has a gym, a weight room, a martial arts center, or a way to purchase a hand gun you can tuck neatly into your belt. And now imagine an entire community of these young men: poor, suffering in school, looking for employment and not finding it, ready to “bring it” if they need to. This is what reality looks like for many urban males.

The time frame of the first infrastructure bond and this jail is probably thirty years. Demographically, it is probable this will be a much different city and county thirty years from now. Our middle class population will not grow nearly as fast as our poor. We are going to have difficult choices to make. How we make those decisions will determine for most of us our quality of life.

Are we practicing “Smart Justice”? Are we building a “Fair and Equal” Community?

This is too smart a community to lock ourselves into a larger investment in law and justice without much more planning, expense, and modeling. I spent the summer reading and addressing on my blog the failures of mass incarceration and racially based policing in America and examining how we are creating those same conditions in Whatcom County. I read Todd Clark, Michelle Alexander, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and others. Few words I have heard about how much we are contributing to mass incarceration and racially based policing except perhaps from County Executive (and Restorative Justice) candidate Joy Gilfilen, local activists Junga Subedar and Irene Morgan. We are clearly sleep walking into the future, committing to law and justice spending levels for generations without enough analysis and data, without enough circumspection.

Do you want to recreate the mistakes of California here in WA? Is that the future you want your children to live in? Do you want to live in fear of drive by shootings as our urban areas grow? Do you want this West Coast list of gritty industrial cities with large ports mentioned in the same breath, "Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma and Bellingham" because they are all similar in crime, inequality and large investments in law and justice infrastructure? The dollars and implications are way too big here for a simple and easy vote. The County Executive and the Sheriff have rushed (some say bullied) a huge project that will effect our future and the future of our children greatly. For me, there has just not been enough input and analysis. We need to consider our law and justice infrastructure expenditures in the context of the greater social and economic realities of our world. If we don't do so carefully, the result will be a well crafted step into a world of greater narcotics trafficking, undiminished law and justice expenditures, violence and the irreducible, irredeemable chaos of another West Coast port city riddled with crime.


J said...

Thank you Ryan for sharing your invaluable and correct assessment of this situation. Everything you have stated gives a clear picture of what we Bellinghamites must do to maintain our current standard of living.

We need more folks like you to be an advocate for those whose voice goes unheard.

Ryan M. Ferris said...

Thanks so much. It occurs to me that faith in others is our best defense against inhumanity.