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 a leading proponent of a consultant’s study that advises the county to spend more to change virtually everything about how the system handles offenders.
“I don’t think we can afford not to,” he told a gathering of local officials and judges this week.
Most of the discussion focused on “pretrial services,” where offenders get help addressing problems such as drug addiction, mental disabilities or homelessness, rather than simply putting them in expensive jail cells.
Consultant David Bennett said those programs have been effective elsewhere in freeing up cells filled by nonviolent offenders. The programs help offenders break the destructive patterns that land them in trouble, he said.
Pretrial services start at booking, helping decide which suspects are safe to be released and then tracking offenders to make sure they show up for court. Many inmates at Spokane County Jail are there because they repeatedly missed court dates, Bennett said.
Cheryl Tofsrud, pretrial services manager, said one inmate was first 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 taking up a jail bed, which costs about $81 a day, Tofsrud said.
The suggested new programs would have helped the offender by assigning his court date before he was released and then 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 a costly jail expansion. Bennett, however, says Spokane County needs a new jail in addition to the system changes.
Plans 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 risk, Knezovich said.
Bennett said the efficiencies would free up more time for judges, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement. But while it’s easy to show how much the current system costs, it’s more difficult to say how much the efficiencies would save.
“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. Commissioners have discussed reducing them to 16 or eight hours a day.
Bennett said that would be a mistake, like a part-time emergency room.
“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 predicted that if the county moves forward with a new jail but not the diversion programs, the jail will need to be replaced in 10 years instead of 25.
“We either change the paradigm or we build bigger facilities,” he said.