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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

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Editorial: Jailing not always smart justice

It’s not unusual to hear social justice advocates and defense attorneys call for criminal justice reform, but on Wednesday more than 130 prominent prosecutors and police officials from around the country joined the movement.

This group, called Law Enforcement Leaders to Reduce Crime and Incarceration, pinpointed its concerns in a USA Today op-ed, writing, “Our experience and research show that good crime control policy is not about locking up everyone. It’s about locking up the right people.”

The op-ed notes that “50 percent of prison and jail inmates have a diagnosed mental illness, and 65 percent of prisoners meet medical criteria for substance abuse and addiction.” The group has thrown its support behind criminal justice reform in Congress.

Leading this effort in the House of Representatives is Republican Rep. Raul Labrador, an Idaho conservative who sees the contradiction in an America touting itself as the land of liberty while locking up people at a rate that far outpaces those in other first-world countries.

The Senate Judiciary Committee will soon vote on the Smarter Sentencing Act, a bipartisan push to reform mandatory-minimum statutes and reduce the federal prison population.

Mass incarceration is busting budgets, and proving to be an extremely inefficient way to address recidivism. Tough-on-crime laws sprung from an era when the crime rate was much higher. Now, research shows that by focusing on the reasons for crime, the system is more apt prevent the next one.

Locking up criminals removes them for a time, but all but the worst offenders return to communities at some point. They won’t have much chance at success in a system that only cages them. If drug addicts or the mentally ill don’t get help, they are likely to reoffend.

On the federal level, marijuana is still considered as harmful as heroin, which is absurd. Meanwhile, more and more states are decriminalizing pot use or making recreational marijuana legal.

Locally, a Smart Justice movement has taken off, with support from judges, attorneys and politicians from both parties. Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell embraced reforms as a candidate.

Former U.S. Attorney James McDevitt was one of three leaders of the Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission, which produced a report calling for reforms.

“Jail is not always the answer,” McDevitt said, when the report was released in January 2014.

Citing more important priorities, the Spokane Police Department wrote only six tickets for public marijuana use from March 2013 to September of this year. Meanwhile, the city council is considering a proposal to toss misdemeanor convictions of pot offenders who were caught before legalization. That should help them secure housing and employment and thus lead more productive lives.

The reform movement isn’t about coddling criminals. It’s about spending public money more wisely and busting a crime-and-punishment cycle that benefits nobody.