The momentum for smart criminal justice reforms continues with the release of the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission’s draft report. The theme is nicely encapsulated in one phrase: “Reform the system to be offender centered, rather than offense centered.”
This does not mean coddling criminals or being soft on crime. It means ending reflexive practices that have clogged pathways to justice and been hard on taxpayers.
Jail is expensive; new ones even more. Traditional intensive supervision does not reduce the likelihood of return visits to a cell, the report says. With that in mind, some of the best criminal justice minds were tapped to figure out a more efficient, sensible way to handle low-level offenders. Front-line personnel also contributed valuable advice on streamlining processes.
Municipal Court has been a model for implementing the 21st-century model of alternative punishments and best practices. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for District Court, which has not been sufficiently cooperative, so the commission has called for a delay in the hoped-for consolidation of the systems. The report notes the court has been “unconcerned with the costs of jail sentences and detention before trials and probation hearings.”
That has to end.
The community already struggles to hire enough law enforcement officers and still faces the expensive prospect of replacing the inadequate and dangerous Geiger Corrections Center. And while the reforms outlined in the report will achieve long-term savings, they have an upfront price tag. So it’s critical that everyone in the system be accountable for costs.
The commission recommends delaying the construction of a new jail, which must come as a relief to elected officials who have declined to ask voters for the money. But it does support a Community Corrections Center to house alternative programs aimed a diverting offenders from jail. The center would include substance abuse and mental health assistance, which are problems the jail system is ill-suited to handle.
Our nation’s substandard approach to mental health issues is one of the reasons for its high incarceration rate. The expansion of Medicaid should help, as will the move toward mental-health parity. The Obama administration announced Friday that health insurers must cover mental illness and substance abuse just as they do broken legs and other physical ailments. Gone will be the inequities in co-pays, hospital stays and doctor visits.
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has called the county jail the largest mental health institution in Eastern Washington. Those are costs that should not be borne by the criminal justice system.
The commissioners of this reform panel – James Murphy, Jim McDevitt and Philip J. Wetzel – are longtime veterans of the criminal justice system. They are to be commended for the long hours and painstaking work that went into the draft report, which can be found at spokanecounty.org/srcjc.
Please read it, and become advocates for a smarter justice system.