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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: New tactics on public safety could cut costs

This Friday, a variety of people in the criminal justice and social justice fields will explore whether they can converge to create a “Smart Justice” field.

The idea behind the Smart Justice Spokane Symposium, at Northern Quest Casino and Resort, is to discuss a different approach that’s lighter on incarceration and heavier on diversions that are more efficient and more effective.

Judges, probation officers, prosecutors, law enforcement officials, mental health experts and policy wonks will gather at the daylong event to hash over such topics as therapeutic courts, electronic home monitoring, risk assessment, early case resolution, conflict resolution with the mentally ill, and current laws that exacerbate our excessively high incarceration rate.

As a final exercise, Spokane Mayor David Condon, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and attorney Breean Beggs will ask attendees their preferences for future actions.

Beggs, a Smart Justice leader, hopes the community can quickly expand the use of electronic home monitoring, community service, day reporting, and drug and mental health courts. The community took some steps in that direction after David Bennett, a criminal justice consultant, examined the county’s system and found that alternative sentencing strategies were being underused. But Smart Justice advocates believe those have been baby steps compared to the possibilities.

By implementing evidence-based practices, the county and cities can curb the expensive practice of warehousing people who pose no threat to the community. Only about half of the people locked up have committed violent crimes. Steering people into services and programs they need, rather than tossing them into a cell, can reduce the chances they will reoffend.

Another strategy is to avoid arrests in the first place. This doesn’t mean letting criminals run free. It means tapping a crisis intervention team to guide detainees with mental health issues or drug and alcohol problems into programs; it means robocalls to remind people of court hearings in order to head off expensive bench warrants; it means more flexibility in holding people accountable for failing to pay legal fines.

At present, the system locks up these offenders, and taxpayers pick up the tab. It’s a colossal waste of money. In 2011, the average daily jail population was 763 people. Smart Justice estimates that reforms could reduce the population to below 472, which is the original capacity of the downtown jail.

However, none of this can occur if community leaders don’t provide political cover for the changes. Heading off the inevitable “tough on crime” demagoguery will require teamwork and trust. The reality is that we can’t afford the $120-a-day price tag for jailing nonviolent offenders, when electronic monitoring costs about $8 to $10 a day. The savings can go toward bolstering our dwindling law enforcement ranks.

We applaud the organizers of this community discussion, and we urge the public to keep an open mind on these innovative strategies to bolster public safety.

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