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Sat., Jan. 11, 2014

Editorial: Regional panel offers plenty of ‘smart justice’ ideas worth pursuing

Crime is repulsive, but not necessarily every criminal. In fact, perhaps not most criminals.

But they need to be dealt with, each in their own way, and the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission on Friday recommended that the local courts and associated apparatus can do a better job of coordinating their management of the thousands of cases presented annually in the county Superior and District courts, and in the city of Spokane’s municipal court.

For example, the city and county do not use the same case-management systems, which cannot share information.

The focus of the report, however, is implementing or expanding the many alternative programs that might help the large population of offenders salvageable before they sink irretrievably into a life of crime.

“Jail is not always the answer,” said former U.S. Attorney James McDevitt, who authored the study along with retired Judge James Murphy and attorney Phillip Wetzel.

The report notes efforts in Seattle to direct low-level drug offenders and prostitutes to community services instead of booking them into jail.

Others, once they enter the court system, can be processed by special panels for adult drug offenders, or veterans. Many of these programs are already working in Spokane.

One major gap: a community corrections center that can integrate housing and treatment services and ease offender transition back into community life.

The list goes on, and much of it has already been introduced as “smart justice” that makes jail the last resort, not the easy, one-size-fits-all solution the community cannot afford.

The jail built in the early 1980s needs millions of dollars in upgrades, and the Geiger Corrections Center should be replaced.

To follow through on its many recommendations, the commission recommended formation of a regional justice commission that “ must be given, by way of legislation or inter-local agreements, the authority to dictate and accomplish those changes necessary to improve our region’s justice system.”

That’s a pretty strong directive.

Obviously, there is much more in 68 pages, with more than 200 pages more of appendices. The three commissioners did yeoman work.

But it’s up to the city and county to make something of it. Mayor David Condon and County Commissioner Todd Mielke say efforts toward implementation will start immediately, but some of the knottier problems, like integration of the county district and city municipal courts, have been set aside for later.

The only payoff the public will care about as these reforms move forward is greater safety. Local law enforcement has made significant progress on some fronts of late, but Spokane has a long way to go.

Providing for the public’s safety consumes 70 percent of the county budget, and 50 percent of the city’s. Everyone can benefit from a more efficient and effective justice system.

The Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission presented the blueprint on Friday.

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