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Shawn Vestal: Merging city, county courts an idea whose time has come again

A former judge, former federal prosecutor and longtime local attorney have taken a close look at the region’s criminal justice system.

The trio – dubbed the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission – spent hours interviewing people in every phase of the system, from city courts to county courts to the jail. They scoured for problems and solutions. They praised programs they found effective and suggested a wide-ranging list of steps that might improve efficiency, reduce the expensive and ineffective warehousing of inmates in the overcrowded jail, and apply creative, evidence-based solutions to the way we dispense justice.

The commission produced a report long on solution-oriented thinking and positive reinforcement. But it is hard to ignore one hard little nugget of criticism inside it: The report singles out the county’s District Court judges for being stuck in a model of sentencing and case management that is costly and ineffective.

“It is clear that the Municipal Court, and all city agencies, have been innovative, cooperative and effective,” the report says. “This cannot be said about the District Court. All city agencies are vehemently opposed to consolidation with the District Court. The District Court was found to lack cohesion and was unwilling to embrace plainly needed reform, and unconcerned with the costs of jail sentences and detention before trials and probation hearings.”

This assessment caught the District Court judges by surprise, to say the least. Presiding Judge Debra Hayes and Judge Randy Brandt, who will be presiding judge in 2014-15, both argued Thursday that the report mischaracterizes the court’s leadership in many innovative programs as well as its willingness to cooperate.

“We have been the innovators of … the lion’s share of the alternatives to incarceration,” Brandt said. “We’ve led the charge, but we’re being portrayed as the party that’s dragging its feet.”

Hayes and Brandt presented many examples of programs their court has developed, overseen or participated in that seem to rebut the picture of their court offered in the report. The District Court runs three therapeutic courts, successful programs that help offenders battle mental health or addiction problems that contribute to their criminality. It has been early in adopting other programs, such as home monitoring, using a system of email warrants, and early case resolution models that speed up pretrial delays and divert low-level offenders away from jail.

So, is one court an innovator and the other a laggard? There are so many moving parts that it’s hard to say definitively, which is perhaps one reason to be wary of the definitive nature of the report’s assessment. Is that how things usually work, all the virtues and vices so neatly divided? All the innovation over here, and all the crusty inefficiency over there? Maybe. But the sense of something underlying and unspoken – some conflict that isn’t being addressed directly – hangs over the whole stew.

This matters, because among the many promising ideas for making our system of criminal justice more efficient, one of the most obvious would be merging the two lower-level court systems, whose cases often overlap. The city of Spokane’s Municipal Court handles misdemeanors within the city borders; the county’s District Court handles county misdemeanors and felony first appearances. The courts were split in 2008, arising from legal concerns over city residents being sentenced by judges elected countywide.

That split seems to have contributed to the inefficiency of the way we handle minor crime in Spokane, – creating more bureaucratic chaff for offenders who may face similar issues in different courts at the same time. The new report says that merging the two would be in Spokane’s best interest, but that the problems within District Court make that unworkable, at least until a proposed new approach with more measurement of each court’s effectiveness is implemented.

“Ideally,” the report says, “with the adoption of the new governance structure and the report card system, the District Court can be held more accountable to the public. In time, the (proposed Regional Justice Commission) may re-evaluate and determine whether the District Court should be consolidated with the more innovative and research-based Municipal Court.”

Brandt and Hayes say they believe the courts should be merged now, and it’s hard to argue with them. People charged with the low-level crimes in these courts are often dealing with cases in two different courts, before different judges, at different times and in different courtrooms – it’s a system seemingly built to trap irresponsible or troubled people into ever-worsening problems.

The report does not arrive from a bunch of know-nothings. James McDevitt, a former U.S. attorney, and longtime local attorney Phillip Wetzel are two of the co-authors. Retired Judge James Murphy is the other; back when he served as a District Court judge between 1978 and 1985, the two lower court systems were one.

Murphy said there are many alternative approaches to simply jailing low-level offenders and letting them wind their way through an overcrowded system, and that other local courts have been pursuing those. Such approaches involve coordination among the judges and leadership from the top.

Murphy said the commission came away with the impression that the approach in District Court is more “fractured,” with each judge following his or her own approach, and with a general approach that favors jailing petty criminals for long periods of time before trial.

The report notes another obstacle to merging Municipal and District courts: “the unanimous and passionate concern expressed by municipal departments about the lack of effective leadership within the District Court.”

In talking to Hayes and Brandt, it was striking how similar their concerns and philosophies of justice were to those expressed in the report. It was striking how similar their views are to those of the report’s authors, and to the “Smart Justice” concepts that are driving so much of the discussion about crime and punishment in Spokane these days. It was striking how Hayes and Brandt spoke of the programs they had implemented and overseen and supported in the exact same terms that Murphy and the report he helped produce do: the language, the philosophy, the buy-in, all of it. The same.

In other words, whatever underlies the schism between Municipal and District courts, it does not seem to be philosophy. Whatever it is, it’s in the community’s best interest for them to get over it and get back together.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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