Criminal justice reform ideas for Spokane drew positive reviews Wednesday evening from people knowledgeable about the system.
The Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission last week released 58 pages of draft recommendations calling for sweeping changes focused largely on moving nonviolent offenders into alternatives to incarceration.
“This region needs exactly what you have provided,” said Mary Lou Johnson, an attorney for the Smart Justice coalition that has been pushing for reforms.
Nearly 150 people turned out for a public hearing at Gonzaga University School of Law.
Bonnie Mager, former Spokane county commissioner, said she supports the commission’s call for evaluating outcomes of various approaches.
“I definitely see the value of making the system accountable,” she said.
The hearing also drew attendees with personal knowledge of what it’s like to be behind bars.
Dom Felix, an ex-convict, is now a volunteer mentor with a Fulcrum Institute program to help offenders successfully re-integrate into society.
He told the commission he spent five years behind bars for selling methamphetamine.
“I’m the first to admit I was a mess and spread the disease,” he said, advocating greater use of a drug diversion court.
He recommended that the commission listen to offenders, too. “There are no felons standing in line to speak at forums like this,” he said.
Bill Moore said his son is in jail because of mental health problems and could have benefited from recommendations on handling offenders with mental problems.
“A lot of what you propose would make a difference for him,” he said.
The draft report recommends expanding a law enforcement crisis intervention team that could be sent on calls involving mental health problems.
The reforms revolve around research showing what works for reducing crime and saving money:
• Creating a diversion program that quickly moves low-level drug offenders and prostitutes into community services with case managers.
• Improving risk and needs assessments for people under arrest to get them into alternative programs when appropriate.
• Increasing the use of electronic home monitoring for pretrial releases.
• Curtailing the practice of putting offenders who don’t pay financial penalties back in jail, possibly by letting them work off the balance through community service.
• Creating diversion programs for the large number of people arrested for driving with a suspended license.
Bart Haggin, an advocate of evidence-based reform, told the commission that “psychology and criminology need to be front and center, but also neuroscience.”
He said some solutions will cost money, but the payoff would be to save people from the stigma of a felony conviction.