January 30, 2009 in City

Justice reform advances despite budget crisis

By The Spokesman-Review
 

Reforming the criminal justice system is daunting enough with plenty of money. Yet local court, law enforcement and elected officials are pushing forward with their plans despite the worst budget crisis in decades.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has said he can’t manage the current system with the money he’s been given by the Spokane County Commission. But he’s one of the leading proponents of a consultant’s study that advises the county to spend more to change virtually everything about how the system currently handles offenders.

“I don’t think we can afford not to,” he told a gathering of local officials and judges earlier this week.

Most of the discussion focused on “pretrial services,” where offenders are given help addressing problems such as drug addictions, mental disabilities or homelessness, rather than simply punishing them by putting them in expensive jail cells.

Consultant David Bennett said those programs have been effective elsewhere in freeing up jail cells currently filled by nonviolent offenders. They work by helping offenders break the destructive patterns that landed them in trouble in the first place.

Pretrial services is designed to start at booking, helping guide quick decisions on those who are safe to be released and tracking offenders to make sure they show up for court. A large percentage of the inmates in the Spokane County Jail are there because they continually missed court dates, Bennett said.

For example, Cheryl Tofsrud, pretrial services manager, told of one jail inmate who initially was arrested for driving with a suspended license. He was released from jail and missed his court date. A judge signed a warrant and he was re-arrested a total of nine times; he now faces four counts of the same charge.

That offender is currently taking up a bed in jail, which costs about $81 a day, Tofsrud said.

The suggested new programs would have helped the offender make sure he knew when he was due in court by assigning a court date before he was released and calling him to remind him to show up. Had the matter been resolved the first time, it would have saved the cost of arresting him and keeping him in jail, Bennett said.

“You are not using a jail bed … by not booking those individuals who can and should be taken to other diversion programs.” Bennett said. “We know if we simply bring people into jail … and release them without that re-entry program, they will be back.”

Similar programs have helped officials in Broward County, Fla., delay plans for a costly jail expansion. Bennett, however, is recommending that Spokane County needs a new jail in addition to the system changes.

Plans currently call for a $245 million jail that would cost another $8 million a year to operate.

Even so, the new programs are needed to make sure that the county uses jail only as an option for offenders who pose the highest risks.

“We don’t have enough money to fund some of the important programs we have today,” Commissioner Mark Richard said. “The budget challenges are immense. We have political capital on the line. We are going to be held accountable by the taxpayers … to demonstrate that success.”

Bennett said the efficiencies would eventually free up more time for judges, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement. While it’s easy to show how much the current system costs, it’s nearly impossible to put a dollar figure on money saved through those efficiencies.

“I don’t have any easy answers as to where the dollars will come from,” Bennett said. “What is absolutely necessary is that we re-energize the criminal justice system.”

He envisions pretrial services operating 24 hours a day to process incoming inmates. But commissioners had previously discussed reducing its operation to 16 or eight hours a day.

Bennett said that would be a mistake. He compared it to a hospital using its emergency room part-time.

“Unless we keep up with the flow, you will always be behind,” he said.

County CEO Marshall Farnell said he’s never faced a budget crisis like this during his long career.

“I don’t know how the county can do all these things,” Farnell said. “I know pretrial services has tremendous merits, but we are facing challenging times.”

Knezovich said that if the county moves forward with the new jail but not the diversion programs, officials will have to replace the proposed jail in 10 years versus 25.

“We either change the paradigm or we build bigger facilities,” he said.

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