A new report on the city’s criminal justice system carries a sobering message: Spokane’s jails are crowded, and race still plays a roll when it comes to sentencing.
That’s according to the Safety and Justice Challenge, a national organization that wants to shrink jail populations. As part of its project, the group looked at race and incarceration for given infractions, and compared its findings to the general spread of the population.
The Safety and Justice Challenge is funded by the the MacArthur Foundation, which became involved in Spokane in 2016 with the award of a $1.75 million grant. That was matched by city and county funds of $1.2 million.
In Spokane, a group called the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council is trying to fix the disparities in jail sentences on a local level. The former administrator of that group, Jackie Van Womer, left her role in August, but a replacement still hasn’t been named.
Van Wormer’s absence has been felt by community members. A group called Spokane Community Against Racism (SCAR) wrote an open letter voicing their frustration with what they perceive as a lack of change and transparency in the criminal justice system.
Kurt Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, is among the letter’s signatories. He and others state that “the enthusiasm from many of the community members who were initially engaged with the SRLJC has been replaced with frustration, dissatisfaction and disappointment.”
“It has been a ridiculously difficult, drawn out process,” Robinson said. “When we starting upping the level of voice, we met a lot of resistance.”
Meanwhile, city and county leaders are narrowing down candidates for the administrator of the Law and Justice Council. They should have a choice within two months, according to John Dickson, Spokane County’s chief operations officer.. On Monday, he and other leaders will conduct the next round of interviews for the spot with four finalists.
“Having a full-time Law and Justice admin that works on behalf of the city and county – it’s a communication link,” Dickson said. He said he’s sure the new role will help SCAR understand the full story and make changes.
Dickson is looking for someone with proven track record of making changes, he said. The position’s funding is split between the city county, and the role draws a salary between $106,000 and $130,000, depending on his or her experience.
Spokane County’s jail data is pooled it in a database from the Institute for State and Local Governance.
Dickson identified that as a pinch-point to his inability to give SCAR members the data. He said the institute has been slow in getting the information back so they can use it.
“It takes time,” she said. “They don’t have report systems where you can push a button and a nice report will come out.”
She and other council members say that change is happening already. One way is an algorithm tool used by judges in Spokane that helps them determine who should be in jail and who should not. It’s called the SAFER tool (the Spokane Assessment for Evaluation of Risk), and it uses data to determine the likeliness of a defendant missing a court date or committing another crime.
Rev. Walter Kendricks, a member of SCAR, points to the disproportionate number of minorities incarcerated in Spokane and asks why this problem can’t be helped now.
“Why would I use data-driven analytics to identify what I as a black man already know?” he said. “Still we dink around and try to accumulate data. It’s a bunch of bull, and it’s a bunch of malarkey.”
Kendricks said the county hasn’t asked anyone in the community to help with the hiring process for the Law and Justice administrator.
“They will put someone in there who do the will of their bidding,” he said. “They are not willing to put someone in that position who are willing to make changes to the criminal justice system.”
In SCAR’s letter, members requested the data so they can tell the racial disparities at the local level. Dickson said the county treated it like a records request and will provide the information as soon as the county gets it.
Dickson said he understands the frustration with the lack of change.
“We need to have face-to-face discussion on these very important topics,” he said.
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