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MacArthur Foundation grant will reduce jail crowding

Spokane County has been rewarded for its efforts at criminal justice reform, with the deep-pocketed MacArthur Foundation selecting the area for a competitive grant to reduce overcrowding at the aging jail.

Spokane is one of 20 recipients nationwide of a $150,000 grant through the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge program, aimed at reducing overcrowding in local jails. Jackie Van Wormer, a Washington State University professor who is heading the county’s Law and Justice Council, said the award is a testament to the work being done to reform the region’s system.

“For Spokane to get this, we’re in the field with some really big urban jurisdictions,” Van Wormer said.

The MacArthur Foundation on Tuesday would not release the full list of grant winners but said that more than 200 cities and counties nationwide applied for the grant.

For a full list of the 20 cities and counties that received the grants, released Wednesday by the foundation, visit this Sirens and Gavels blog post.

Van Wormer said the money will help fund a data analyst to evaluate the population of the Spokane County Jail, where overcrowding has long been a problem. The issue prompted the creation of a three-member commission that, with the help of organizations like Smart Justice and the Center for Justice, produced a “Blueprint for Reform” in 2013.

Van Wormer, Spokane County Detention Director John McGrath and other representatives from Spokane County are in Washington, D.C., this week for an orientation on the second round of the grant process. Four federal criminal justice reform agencies will send experts to Spokane and the other 19 selected sites through December to help “craft strategies to reduce the inappropriate use of jail without compromising public safety,” according to the program’s website.

The goals of the program “look a lot like the Blueprint for Reform,” Van Wormer said. “Creating a standardized risk assessment system, looking closely at our jail population and using data to answer some questions. What is our jail capacity? What kind of offenders do we want in jail versus who’s really in there?”

Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said the grant would “kick-start” many of the reforms underway, including the creation of courts for drug abusers, veterans and those with mental illnesses.

“This says a lot about the hard work we’ve been doing in our community on criminal justice,” O’Quinn said.

At the end of the six months, the 20 grant-winning sites will be evaluated once more. Five locations will be selected for up to $2 million annually in funding for the next two years to continue jail population reduction efforts.

Reducing the population at the jail, which routinely houses about 675 inmates but often holds up to 100 more than that, is just one of the goals outlined by the Law and Justice Council, which includes representatives from Spokane County, the city of Spokane and all levels of the region’s court system and law enforcement agencies. Van Wormer, an assistant professor of criminal justice with extensive experience in reforms at the local level, has been the administrator of the council since its inception last year. Spokane County commissioners recently voted to extend her contract through next May.

Van Wormer will be paid $88,157 for her services, with the salary split evenly between the county and the city. The contract calls for a big increase in her time commitment this year, from eight to 10 hours a week to around 30 hours per week, she said.

The foundation, established in 1970 by philanthropists John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur, is known for its annual “genius grants.” It gave $228 million in 2013, the most recent year donations were recorded. The foundation has set aside $75 million for the Safety and Justice Challenge program.


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