Amia Froese attended the most recent Committee of the Bellingham City Council Meeting in which Mayor Seth Fleetwood’s proposed Ordinance prohibiting open use of controlled substances in public places that would result in a misdemeanor. The purpose of this proposed ordinance is not incarceration, but rather a tool to address the pervasive open use of drugs, which contributes to public areas feeling unsafe. While this ordinance would not be a cure-all, proponents feel that this could help to make a difference.
During the meeting, Mayor Fleetwood began by stating that this in part was a response to the increased concerns voiced by downtown merchants and community members reluctant to use downtown. As many know, the Whatcom County jail is already at capacity which results in booking restrictions. While some community members are looking to adequately convey the importance of a new facility to the upcoming ballot, the City has also looked into contract jail space to assist if needed. There is currently lots of complacency and impunity among those partaking in drug activity and the Mayor stated the goal is to find a way to disrupt the activity. This ordinance would allow police to confiscate drugs with the idea to propose in tandem the creation of a new process at municipal court: officers could take the individual directly to court and create opportunity to provide services. This ‘therapeutic court’ would allow a response by taking action.
Mayor Fleetwood reiterated that the intention of the ordinance is to declare appropriate community standard and instill confidence for those that live and work downtown that things will get better.
Judge Lev described therapeutic courts as a community court which is neighborhood focused, with the goal of harnessing the power of justice system in effort to bolster the community. It is a specialty court system that holds participants accountability but also connects them with social services. It offers a collaborative approach that is therapeutic versus a punitive approach. Community court is especially helpful at addressing offences such as theft, stolen property, urinating in public, resisting arrest, alcohol use, and possession of drugs. The drive is to offer help and also re-engage the individuals in society in a positive way, with the philosophy being that anybody is capable of change.
Regarding funding for such a program, Judge Lev explained that there are options such as grants, through the AOC and as well as fund requests that may be brought before Council. A wellness court (behavioral health only) already exists and is working resulting in many positive outcomes, changed lives and has provided numerous success stories.