The apparent success of Spokane’s 2-year-old community court was rewarded last week with a $200,000 Department of Justice grant to help serve people downtown more effectively.
The grant may be the first step in expanding the court to neighborhoods outside of downtown, city officials said.
Spokane’s community court operates out of the downtown library and aims to reduce “quality of life” crimes like trespassing, consuming alcohol in public, panhandling and public urination.
The court connects low-level offenders with service providers to help them address underlying problems like substance abuse, homelessness and mental illness. Instead of jail time, most offenders agree to meet with service providers and perform community service in exchange for having charges dropped.
Police, city prosecutors, public defenders and the Downtown Spokane Partnership have all been supportive of the court, saying it’s helping to reduce crime downtown while saving the city money by keeping people out of jail.
“With what we have, we’ve been able to impress,” city prosecutor Justin Bingham told the city’s Public Safety Committee on Monday.
Municipal Court Judge Mary Logan said the city would use the two-year grant to strengthen services for offenders by using a new needs assessment tool with help from Washington State University. That will help the court better match people with services to help them.
The court also will be able to hire a coordinator who will handle the logistics of helping service providers with their needs and getting new providers to join the effort. That will free up time for the court’s two attorneys, prosecutor Adam Papini and public defender Francis Adewale, to work on cases.
In the second year of the grant, the court may consider expanding to other neighborhoods that have expressed an interest, Logan said.
The city also is working with WSU to assess the impact the court has had so far, Bingham said.
Adewale said Justice Department representatives were impressed with Spokane’s library model, where court is held in a comfortable building many offenders visit regularly, rather than a more formal courthouse setting. They also lauded partnerships with local hospitals and health care providers to reduce the number of emergency room visits by frequent users, he said.
Spokane was one of 10 cities across the country to receive grant funding from the Center for Court Innovation and the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Assistance to either start or expand a community court program.
Two other recipients, Eugene and Olympia, are starting community court programs modeled off of Spokane’s, and representatives from both cities have visited to learn more about the program.
Olympia’s court began hearing cases in January and plans to hire an on-site professional to perform mental health and substance abuse evaluations. Eugene hopes to have a court operating by summer.
The grant is the second significant grant announced this month that will boost local court programs. Spokane County won a $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant to reduce overcrowding and racial disparities in jail.
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