January 19, 2014 in Opinion

Special to The Spokesman-Review: Regional criminal justice panel got it wrong

Don Brockett
 

The Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission has issued a report suggesting a move to an “offender-based” system.

This turns the so-called “criminal justice system” on its head. It is not a “system” but rather a “process” with checks and balances to protect the rights of arrested and charged persons while providing justice to the victim, the public and the defendant. We need to remember the process was originally put in place to eliminate the victim’s need for revenge.

Unfortunately, because of court rulings, it has instead become the “criminal defendant’s process” in which every “t” must be crossed and every “i” dotted. We focus on form instead of substance. So as the saying goes, “If the constable blunders, the criminal goes free.” A former trial judge once wisely stated, “Every person is entitled to a fair trial, not a perfect trial.”

We already expend much on the convicted offender who made a choice to commit the crime, and not enough on the victim who did not choose to be involved. I believe we should take more of the resources we spend on offenders and spend them on more police and prosecutors. We could apprehend more criminals, a significant deterrent, and prosecutors wouldn’t have to do as much plea bargaining. We would be safer and not have to allocate as many resources to the area of corrections.

It is surprising to me that we continue to go down this proposed road. We are already sacrificing public safety in order to provide services to offenders. We must remember the purpose for which the process was established and use common sense. If the Legislature wanted offenders diverted from the process, it would be provided for by law.

The report states: “After reviewing the police report, City of Spokane or Spokane County Prosecuting Attorneys must decide if sufficient evidence exists to justify using taxpayer money to pursue adjudication of the crime.”

This is not a good test for filing charges. We don’t want prosecutors not following the law as passed, whether city or county ordinances or state law. The suggested test would treat people in similar situations differently, thereby negating the “equal justice” the process is attempting to accomplish. The charging decision should be based on whether:(1) there is probable cause to believe there was a crime committed under the applicable law, and (2) probable cause to believe the defendant committed it. The law can be changed by our elected representatives if it needs to be changed.

It appears some want to avoid their responsibility by spending money to hire additional personnel, a new commission, which according to the report must be given “the authority to dictate and accomplish those changes necessary to improve (the) … system … free from the politics that now hamper progress.”

Is that acceptable? Having the officials elected is what is supposed to cause them to be directly responsible to us, the purest system of politics. Do we want them attempting to avoid their responsibility by saying they had to change their procedures because told to do so by a commission of people who are not elected by us?

How will the commission legally dictate to the chief of police of the city, appointed by the mayor and answerable to the public through him and the council? How will it legally dictate to the sheriff of the county who is elected by us? Will he follow the dictates of the commission or the public that elected him and the law?

The prosecuting attorney of the county is a constitutional officer. How will the commission legally dictate to him in order to overcome the independence of his office? Will we be able to affect those we elect to office? How will a commission be able to spend taxpayer funds if it is not authorized by law by the Legislature?

It seemed strange to me that the commission suggested its recommendations “must be balanced against the constitutional independence of the courts.” What of the elected independence of the other members of the process?

If there are turf wars occurring that hamper the process, the elected city mayor and City Council and the elected county commissioners could exert the appropriate pressure, understanding their roles compared to the other elected officials, to bring about appropriate changes that would provide more coordination to the process rather than avoiding their responsibility by appointing a commission.

Don Brockett is a former Spokane County prosecuting attorney.


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