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

Spokane County law and justice council will start up again

Spokane County used to have a law and justice council that was supposed to work on improving the criminal justice system.

The group was formed in 1992 and was made up of representatives from law enforcement, the courts and other parts of the system.

The council quit meeting years ago for lack of agreement, officials said.

Now, county commissioners want to re-establish the council and add several new members for an increasingly important job – criminal justice reform.

Commissioners approved a resolution on Tuesday to reorganize the panel and update its structure to keep its members on task.

Two county commissioners, the mayor of Spokane and the city’s council president are joining the group to provide new leadership.

They are responsible for paying the bills for arresting, jailing, prosecuting, treating and releasing offenders.

The cost is high: The county spends 70 percent of its general tax fund on criminal justice.

Also being added to the council will be the county public defender and director of pretrial services.

Elected leaders have a newly issued blueprint to show them the way.

Last winter, the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission issued a series of recommendations drawn from a year of study aimed at finding best practices for reducing the burden of locking up offenders.

Alternatives to incarceration such as treatment or work programs could reduce costs and help offenders change their lives. The goal is to reduce the number of repeat offenders who are crowding the jail and courts.

County Commissioner Todd Mielke said a key to success is getting better offender assessments at the time of arrest to determine who might be suited for alternative programs.

He said he hopes the reorganized council will break down the bureaucratic silos that have stymied reform in the past.

A smaller administrative committee made up of two county commissioners, Spokane’s mayor and council president, and the presiding Superior Court judge is expected to become an oversight group.

The Smart Justice coalition sent a letter to commissioners supporting the action but recommending additional representation, including citizens.

Also on Tuesday, county commissioners approved an agreement with Washington State University to hire Jackie van Wormer of WSU’s Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology to be project manager for the first year.

Van Wormer, an assistant professor, is an expert on the subject who has been involved with reform projects across the country. The cost to the county is $26,000.