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Shawn Vestal: Jail better off under Knezovich – even critics should admit it

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich has a reputation as a straight shooter. But was he shooting straight when he claimed that his jail staffers had developed programs that reduced repeat offenses and added alternatives to incarceration?

Knezovich’s political opponents – a group of disgruntled former deputies opposed to the sheriff’s hard line on discipline – asked the county to provide the evidence for the sheriff’s claim, in a news release eight months ago, that rehabilitation-oriented community-corrections programs had done just that.

The county responded that the sheriff had collected no such documents or data.

“How can the Sheriff claim that recidivism is down when he does not collect the data necessary to prove or disprove his claim?” the group, Integrity First, asked in a news release. “Even more disappointing is the fact that many citizens responded to his press release with accolades and praise, not knowing that no data are collected or analyzed.”

Outrageous, no? No.

First things first. A variety of efforts overseen by Knezovich have dramatically reduced revolving-door problems at the jail. It is well nigh impossible, at least now, to add them all up to a single figure, but several statistical measures attest to this.

The sheriff should have figured out a way to provide this information to Integrity First – as much as possible. What’s happening between him and the group has less to do with public safety or integrity than it does with cheap, personal politics.

Integrity First has got a beef with the sheriff, to put it mildly, and is working against his re-election. Some of its members’ complaints stem from characteristics that are among Knezovich’s most admirable – in particular, his quick and decisive approach to disciplining bad apples.

Knezovich has fired more than 50 employees. This is too many for Integrity First, which says such firings put the county in danger of losing expensive lawsuits and spending too much to train and replace the officers.

And yet, that does not release Knezovich from the basic obligation to speak truthfully. And so we come to a news release his office issued in March, touting improvements at the county jail and praising jail staff for developing and using new programs adopting Smart Justice approaches.

The release highlighted one very quantifiable piece of good news: The jail budget was a million bucks in the black.

That compares pretty favorably to the situation at the jail back when one of the members of Integrity First, Jerry Brady, supervised it. In 2008, the jail operated nearly a million dollars in the hole. Knezovich replaced Brady.

The news release went on to emphasize the Smart Justice-style approach being taken at the jail – using various programs to divert, train and counsel inmates in an effort to keep them out of jail. The release said Knezovich “added that these programs have also led to alternatives other than incarceration and a reduction in the recidivism rates.”

Integrity First filed a records request asking for all the empirical data and calculations Knezovich had used in asserting this. The county responded that the sheriff has not collected any such records – meaning that the sheriff, himself, personally, had not done so. This response, which Knezovich says was the advice of county legal counsel, is a gross example of ignoring the spirit of the law to follow its letter. It was legalistic and petty – but perhaps, given the history of hectoring and attacks and bad faith flowing from Integrity First, not entirely surprising.

Nevertheless, you can’t blame Integrity First for asking: How can the sheriff assert that the jail programs have reduced recidivism?

There is not, now, an overall measure of how often inmates serving sentences in the jail – as opposed to the larger population of those awaiting trial – return after release. We need better, more comprehensive measures. But there are indeed several quantifiable examples of community-corrections programs that are reducing recidivism and routing offenders to alternatives outside of jail.

Some examples:

• One of the key problems in the revolving door behind the county’s exploding jail population arose from a failure to charge people quickly upon arrest. People are released 72 hours after arrest if they’re not charged; for years, such people would be charged long after release, fail to appear, get rearrested … on and on. Knezovich has overseen the process that improved the pretrial process top-to-bottom, ensuring the timely filing of charges. According to David Bennett, a consultant working on jail issues with the county, efforts to turn this around have paid off dramatically: In 2009, just 34 percent of the people arrested were charged within 72 hours. In the first quarter of this year, that figure is 75 percent.

• The number of jail bookings has gone down from 2008 to 2012, from 23,104 to 21,070 – following years of the opposite trend. That is only suggestive – but it is suggestive.

• A program teaching moral reasoning to Geiger inmates showed that those who took the classes reoffended at a rate of 12 percent. The overall jail average is estimated at somewhere in the range of 40 percent.

• A Breaking Barriers program, teaching cognitive skills to Geiger inmates, had a recidivism rate of 14 percent.

None of those directly answers the questions Integrity First asked – for deep data and specific formulas. There are a lot of programs, and I could not find comparable figures for many of them. Other programs, such as drug court, have been a big success in diverting felons into treatment and breaking their criminal cycles, though you couldn’t really credit the jail staff with that one.

Do we know enough about them, enough about which ones work and which don’t, and where resources should be targeted? We do not. Are some of the assertions made about the program’s success backed up by deep, hard-core, transparent data? They are not.

But neither are they baseless. On this question and others, the sheriff is shooting straighter than the other guys.

Shawn Vestal can be reached at (509) 459-5431 or Follow him on Twitter at @vestal13.

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