July 9, 2013 in City

Smart Justice seeks Spokane criminal justice reform

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A group pushing for criminal justice reform in Spokane called for moving tax money from pretrial lockup to programs that help offenders turn their lives around.

Smart Justice leaders outlined their recommendations Monday to the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission, a panel appointed last fall to come up with solutions to escalating crime and jail crowding.

“We want to shift resources away from pretrial warehousing,” said attorney Breean Beggs, of Smart Justice. “The top goal should be increasing problem-solving in the courts.”

The group called for greater use of therapeutic courts to help offenders deal with substance abuse and mental health problems. A successful program to resolve cases more quickly should be expanded as well, the group said.

In some cases, offenders are barred from the alternative programs because, for example, they have been identified as having gang affiliations.

Beggs said barriers to treatment should be removed so more offenders can participate.

Criminal justice consumes 70 percent of Spokane County’s $140 million general fund each year, and that does not count the money spent by municipalities such as Spokane.

Smart Justice called for consolidation and reorganization across a range of offices, including district and municipal courts.

The group recommended that county commissioners create a 13-member law and justice council to oversee the system through an executive committee, an executive-level administrator and coordinating committee.

The council and administrator would then oversee reform efforts with an eye toward greater coordination and cooperation among the various offices, courts, labor groups and treatment providers who participate in the system.

“Our goal is to bring the criminal justice system into the 21st century,” said Julie Schaffer, staff attorney at the Center for Justice in Spokane.

Smart Justice is recommending that the county build a new community corrections center to house treatment and jail-alternative programs, but hold off on construction of a $100 million new jail until the Smart Justice concepts have a chance to be launched and evaluated.

A key element is creation of a more robust program for pretrial assessments of offenders to identify ways they could be diverted from incarceration.

A portion of Monday’s session at the Unitarian Universalist Church in northwest Spokane was devoted to solving the problem of high minority incarceration rates.

Justice Commissioners Philip J. Wetzel and James Murphy both said they would be willing to examine the problem of the disproportionate number of minority offenders locally.

The Rev. Percy “Happy” Watkins of the New Hope Baptist Church in Spokane said black churches want to be involved in repairing lives disrupted by crime, but the congregations don’t have the financial resources to establish programs independently.

Commissioners said they expect to issue their reform recommendations in November. They plan to take public comment starting later this summer.

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