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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane jail population can be reduced safely, group says

Ideas sent to panel evaluating criminal justice costs

Far more people are being sent to jail than necessary in Spokane, according to a community coalition for criminal justice reform.

Smart Justice Spokane wants to divert more low-level offenders into programs that will help them get out of trouble and build productive lives.

Those programs might include electronic home monitoring, community service, day reporting, deferred prosecution, treatment, education, employment training and housing placement.

The group’s ideas are encompassed in a series of recommendations to the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission, formed by city and county officials last fall to get a handle on criminal justice costs.

Mary Lou Johnson, attorney for Smart Justice, said many people caught up in the criminal justice system are overwhelmed by poverty, drug use or mental illness.

In some cases, they’re only guilty of not being able to pay fines they have accumulated over the years.

“We are never really allowing them to re-enter society,” Johnson said.

The recommendations to the commission were drawn from programs in Spokane and around the country that have been shown to work, she said.

The Criminal Justice Commission is gathering information on those issues before it takes public testimony late this summer. A final set of recommendations is due this fall.

Spokane County Commissioner Todd Mielke said he recently visited the lockup in Montgomery County, Md., where offenders “do a very intensive re-entry” into the community.

That includes maximum use of pretrial release, alternative sentences and treatment programs, he said.

The biggest obstacle to reform in Spokane may come from players in the justice system trying “to protect their turf,” Mielke said, and the commission being asked to break through institutional barriers.

There is no disagreement that dangerous offenders need to be locked up and sent to prison.

“There are people who belong in jail,” Johnson said. “We are not talking about them – period.”

But too many people are behind bars even though they are not a threat to public safety, she said.

According to Smart Justice, 8 percent of the daily jail population in Spokane in 2011 was made up of people arrested on bench warrants, a high number of which are issued for failure to appear for court proceedings.

Smart Justice is calling for a court date notification system – similar to when the dentist office calls to remind people of appointments. That might cut the jail population by 30 prisoners a day on average.

Sixty percent or more of jail inmates have mental health or substance abuse problems or a combination of both, according to the group.

To address that issue, a crisis intervention team made up of law enforcement and treatment providers could be used to divert mentally ill offenders from jail and get them the help they need.

Memphis, Tenn., saw an 80 percent reduction in injuries to officers by implementing a system to defuse mental health episodes, according to reports compiled by Smart Justice. Albuquerque, N.M., saw a reduction in police shootings as a result of crisis intervention techniques.

Montgomery County empowers staff to grant pretrial release within six hours of arrest, Mielke said.

Low-level drug offenders and prostitution suspects should be diverted from jail by letting officers take offenders directly to treatment, according to Smart Justice’s research. A pilot effort to do that is under way in Seattle. The Smart Justice coalition believes Spokane should do the same if it’s shown to be effective.

Offenders who have big fines, restitution costs and interest charges should not be sent directly to jail, but many of them are, Smart Justice found. During the first six months of 2012, an average of 32 jail inmates were being held for not making good on legal financial obligations.

One possible solution: a program that allows court clerks to work with offenders who are behind on payments to set up payment plans. Those who refuse to pay would still be held accountable.

The city of Spokane has a 3-year-old program to help drivers with suspended licenses pay their fines and get their licenses reinstated. Smart Justice wants to see that program expanded to help drivers get out from under their fines.

Johnson said the success of diversion programs hinges on an assessment of the needs of each individual and a commitment within the system to find the right program for each person.