A Seattle University law professor told Spokane’s Rotary Club 21 on Thursday that Spokane County’s new jail needs to be only as big as its legal policies.
Robert Boruchowitz told the Rotarians that the current $200 million plan for a new jail is not needed if local prosecutors and law enforcement embrace treatment alternatives.
“Diverting and reclassifying misdemeanors can save a billion dollars a year,” Boruchowitz said, referring to national figures.
In 2009, Spokane County District Court handled about 8,000 misdemeanors, and about 10,800 cases went through Spokane Municipal Court, all misdemeanors.
Of the suspects going to jail, some 22 percent are charged with misdemeanors such as criminal trespassing, alcohol offenses, prostitution and non-alcohol-related driving offenses.
“In my opinion, all those cases can be diverted rather than putting them in jail,” Boruchowitz said.
Local attorney Breean Beggs introduced Boruchowitz and said that nationally about 70 percent of all cases go through a treatment or diversion program rather than to jail. However, that number is about 30 percent in Spokane County.
“The number of beds you need (in the jail) has little to do with your crime rate or population,” Beggs said. “It has to do with your policies.”
Studies have also shown that not only are diversion programs cheaper for taxpayers, people who complete them are less likely to re-offend than people who are warehoused in jail, Beggs said.
Boruchowitz said his study of Spokane County’s jail population also showed an alarmingly high percentage of black inmates. They made up about 11 percent of the jail population but only 1.9 percent of the county’s population.
“That racial disproportionality is significant,” he said.
The jail averages five inmates a day for possession of marijuana, which costs the county about $228,000 a year, the law professor said. That doesn’t include the $1,000 to $2,000 cost per case to prosecute those suspects, he said.
Spokane County commissioners a month ago put on hold a plan to seek voter approval for a $199.5 million project that would build a 752-bed replacement for the Geiger Corrections Center and a 192-bed community corrections center, and renovate the Spokane County Jail back to its original 462 beds – for a total of 1,406 beds.
Boruchowitz praised Spokane City Prosecutor Mary Muramatsu for no longer treating driving with a suspended license as a crime. Instead, those cases are fined like a regular traffic ticket. As a result of that one move, the number of cases that need public defenders has been reduced, as have the number of people jailed on that charge and the number of failure-to-appear warrants issued.
“There is truly a movement within the state and nationally for alternatives,” Boruchowitz said.