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Speedier justice

Sat., Aug. 22, 2009

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno waits as Assistant Public Defender  Peggy Ransom, left, explains court proceedings to her client Monday. Moreno was handling the Early Case Resolution program, which seeks faster processing of cases to get offenders through the court system.  (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno waits as Assistant Public Defender Peggy Ransom, left, explains court proceedings to her client Monday. Moreno was handling the Early Case Resolution program, which seeks faster processing of cases to get offenders through the court system. (CHRISTOPHER ANDERSON / The Spokesman-Review)

Programs pick up pace, reduce jail population

A college student charged with felony theft recently stood before Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno and asked to be enrolled into a diversion program.

She was accused of shoplifting in July. By mid-August, the 21-year-old student got another chance at a clean record.

Under the old system, that student might have earned a degree and started a job before a prosecutor ever called her to stand trial. Now, Moreno is presiding over a new program called Early Case Resolution, one of several new programs designed to bring justice sooner and to assist offenders in finding help for drug, alcohol or mental health issues that contributed to their crimes.

“How do you administer justice two years down the line?” Moreno asked. “Some folks have moved on. They have kids and a job, and then you tell them they have to spend a year in prison?

“Or how do you administer justice if they have lost everything because they have been in jail all that time? That was not a good situation for anybody.”

While the goal is to administer justice sooner, the judge said, the program has other benefits. “It’s cut down on jail costs,” she said, “and people are more motivated to get into treatment rather than sitting around for a year waiting for the case to get to court.”

Officials already have moved first court appearances from Spokane County District Court, where offenders often left without receiving a court date, to Superior Court. The goal is to cut the time from arrest to an appearance before a judge.

“We are seeing cases filed in a more timely fashion so that we are able to adjudicate cases more quickly,” Moreno said. “We are holding them accountable a lot sooner, which seems to be keeping their attention.”

Many low-level property crimes and certain drug offenses are being funneled to Early Case Resolution, where Moreno decides whether to allow them into Drug Court or diversion programs, or takes their guilty pleas.

Without a court date, offenders often didn’t know when to appear, which resulted in arrest warrants for failure to appear. At any given time, some 100 beds in the jail were filled with inmates who didn’t make it to court or who hadn’t paid court fines.

One of many changes

The program is one of several major changes suggested by consultant David Bennett, who helps law enforcement officials all over the country fine-tune their systems.

In his review of the local criminal justice system, Bennett said the largest problem he encountered was that police, sheriff’s detectives and prosecutors were failing to comply with what’s called the 72-hour rule. Under state law, charges must be filed within 72 hours after an arrest or officials must release suspects.

In fact, suspected offenders in Spokane County walked free at one of the highest rates Bennett had seen. In the first five months of 2005, officials released more than 400 suspects from the Spokane County Jail because charges weren’t filed within 72 hours.

“I see the nonfiling problem in every jurisdiction. But I had not encountered it at the level that it was in Spokane County. The rule here was, ‘We’ll get to it later,’ ” Bennett said. “But we’ve just made great strides in correcting this monumental problem.”

When those suspects walked, many thought their charges had been dismissed. Others, as Moreno suggested, got on with their lives or committed more crimes.

“It’s an integrity issue and accountability issue. Most of our clients are not headed off to college. They are more likely to continue on with their alcohol or drug abuse and criminal activities,” Bennett said. “We will never get ahold of that if we don’t start the court process.”

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the reforms were necessary to reduce the number of inmates and show voters what is being done to improve the system, before he asks for a tax increase to build a new jail.

“This entire project is an extreme paradigm shift. If we are not successful in this, I need to build a bigger jail,” Knezovich said.

Asked why the changes didn’t occur sooner, Moreno blamed a lack of cooperation. At various points, prosecutors, detectives or public defenders would realize that change was needed, but they couldn’t get their counterparts to change.

Bennett’s report gave them the reason; officials began meeting in February 2008.

“This was not easy. A lot of people were saying this could not be done,” Moreno said.

“We had no insight as to why we should do business any differently until we understood that all the decisions by police, prosecutors and judges all had an impact.”

Jack Driscoll, the county’s chief deputy prosecutor, said his office dedicated one prosecutor just to the cases sent to Moreno. That deputy must handle about 500 or 600 cases at a time, compared with a regular caseload of about 144, he said.

“Those cases are not going to other prosecutors’ caseloads. It helps across the board,” Driscoll said.

Spokane County Public Defender John Rodgers has seen similar results in his office.

“There is no doubt it is infinitely better,” Rodgers said. “The studies show that what deters people from committing crimes is not how severe the punishment is but how quickly the punishment comes. If you don’t lock them up for a year or two, you lose a lot of that deterrence.”

Skills, connections

Knezovich said another project has started at Geiger Corrections Center. Unlike Early Case Resolution, which often works with first-time offenders, the pilot project works with folks with long criminal histories.

“The pilot project is designed to take people who have drug and alcohol addictions … and teach them life skills and how to make proper decisions,” the sheriff said. “It links them with job and housing possibilities.”

The first class graduated in July. Of the 14 inmates who started, 11 completed the program and nine ended up with jobs.

“We have to do something to keep people from ending up in jail who really shouldn’t be there,” Knezovich said.

Knezovich said the programs, done without cost to taxpayers, already have reduced the jail population. The jail this summer has averaged 100 to 150 fewer inmates than in 2007 and 2008, he said.

Another new program

One of the most important programs has yet to start. County officials are waiting to hear whether they obtained a grant that would fund Pre-Trial Services. The goal of the program is to do an assessment of every inmate when he or she is booked into jail. A staff member would evaluate the charge, criminal history and ties to the community to determine whether that person would be a good candidate for release.

If they’re released, the staff would regularly call them to make sure they know when and where to appear for court. Staff also would be able to direct offenders to treatment options before their cases go before a judge.

If officials can get an offender to court, it cuts down the time public defenders, prosecutors, judicial assistants and clerks must spend on the case, Driscoll said.

“The less time everybody is involved with one individual, the more time they have for other cases,” he said. “I wish we had started this years ago, frankly.”


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