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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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WSU instructor will head Spokane criminal justice reform efforts

Spokane County and city officials will hire a Washington State University assistant professor with expertise in criminal justice to lead the initial implementation of criminal justice reforms recommended by a blue-ribbon panel last winter.

Jackie van Wormer is expected to be hired under a $26,000 yearlong contract to serve as project manager for instituting recommendations in the 60-page report by the three-member panel.

Spokane County commissioners are expected to take action on hiring van Wormer on Tuesday.

During a meeting with county and city officials last week, van Wormer said her work in recent years has revolved around reform efforts in other states. She said she is eager to help Spokane implement changes.

Those changes could reduce the high cost of criminal justice, at the same time providing offenders with tools to turn their lives around.

Van Wormer has master’s and doctoral degrees in criminal justice from WSU and is on the faculty of WSU’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology. She also has experience working in the field prior to joining academia.

The cost of van Wormer’s services is being split 50-50 between the county and city.

After one year, the county would replace van Wormer with a full-time reform project manager.

Last winter, the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission issued recommendations in its “blueprint for reform” after spending a year looking closely at how law enforcement, the courts, alternatives to sentencing and treatment programs work or don’t work in study of “best practices.”

The commission was made up of retired Superior Court Judge James Murphy, former U.S. Attorney James McDevitt and longtime criminal attorney Phillip J. Wetzel.

They called for diversion programs to get low-level offenders into treatment. They also said the county needs to implement a more thorough risk and needs assessment of offenders when they are arrested to get them into appropriate programs.

A need for new jail space has been put on hold until the reform ideas are given a chance to work, which is one of the commission recommendations.

However, the commission supported construction of a community corrections center to handle diversions and alternatives to jail sentencing.

City and county officials last week said they plan to reinstitute a Law and Justice Council, which is authorized under state law but had ceased to be active in recent years.

An executive board of the council would be the top authority over reform ideas with the council acting as arbiter of various interests within the criminal justice system.

County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said she is impatient with slow progress at implementing reforms. “I feel like we have taken a really long time to get here,” she said.

Mary Lou Johnson, attorney for the Smart Justice Spokane coalition, said reform efforts may run into difficulties because of the large number of independently elected officials who have control over parts of the system.

“There is a lot of potential for conflict,” she said.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said judges have been notoriously independent in the past and may not always cooperate with reforms.

The Law and Justice Council is expected to be the forum for developing compromise and consensus, officials said.

Citizen representatives would likely be appointed to subcommittees of the Law and Justice Council, a concept that Johnson said would provide greater community buy-in for changes.

Van Wormer told officials last week that a lack of acceptance of changes is the top reason that reform efforts have failed elsewhere.

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