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

Report: Justice reforms working

But county must keep improving, consultant says

Spokane County in the past five years has made progress in reforming its criminal justice system, but there is still a lot of work to do to reduce costs and get offenders to change their ways, a consultant said Tuesday.

David Bennett, a Park City, Utah, consultant hired by the county several years ago to help guide reforms in Spokane, urged county commissioners and others to continue to work on improvements.

New jail treatment programs, specialized courts for drugs and mental health offenders, and early case resolution are examples of innovations that are working, Bennett said.

Bennett in 2008 issued recommendations to reform the system from the time of arrest to the way offenders are handled once they return to the community.

It’s a complex system involving multiple offices and agencies, including the sheriff, police departments and post-release probation.

Escalating costs for holding lawbreakers in jail led to the appointment last fall of a Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission, which is working in tandem with Bennett.

All three panel members were at Tuesday’s briefing. They’re expected to take public testimony in August and September before making recommendations on reform in November.

The stakes are high. Spokane County spends 70 percent of its $140 million general fund on criminal justice, and that doesn’t count costs to cities in the region.

Bennett on Tuesday called for a pretrial screening program operating 24 hours a day to decide who should be held and who should be released, with an eye toward getting offenders plugged into special courts, diversions and treatment programs.

That pretrial screening staff would also help make sure offenders know when they are to appear in court, Bennett said.

Prosecutors have made strides in speeding up charges and case resolutions. The result has been an increase in cases, he said.

He recommended hiring a criminal history and restitution specialist in the prosecutor’s office and an additional public defender.

Bennett said Spokane is having unacceptable delays of up to 50 days to get offenders into mental health or drug court programs because of the great demand.

The addition of a range of treatment programs at Geiger Corrections Center over the past year or more is showing results in getting offenders on the right track.

But the property crime problem in the Spokane region requires a task force approach that will “drop a house” on repeat violators, Bennett said. Offenders who might see getting arrested as simply the cost of thievery need to be told that “we know who you are and we are watching,” he said.