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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County Jail receives an additional $1.75 million from MacArthur Foundation to reduce overcrowding

Spokane County’s efforts to reduce overcrowding and racial disparities at its aging jail have earned an additional investment of $1.75 million from the MacArthur Foundation.

Jacqueline van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator, announced the decision Wednesday afternoon.

“I think we can spend the day sort of celebrating,” van Wormer said in an interview before the meeting. “But then the really hard work begins.”

Spokane County and the city of Spokane have pledged an additional $1.2 million over the next three years to pursue programs intended to slash the number of inmates in the jail, which has been in operation since 1986. The MacArthur Foundation, which has been working with city and county officials since the announcement of a first round of funding in May, has set goals of reducing the jail population by 17 percent through 2018, and by 21 percent by 2019.

The jail’s average daily population was 965 inmates last year, according to Spokane County figures.

The money pledged by the MacArthur Foundation and the city and the county will be used to revamp the county’s Pre-Trial Services Department, which will use a revised risk assessment tool developed by Washington State University Professor Zach Hamilton to determine who should be booked into jail and who should be diverted to other social programs.

An additional eight staff members will be hired in Pre-Trial Services, and the jail also will employ three mental health professionals to screen potential inmates as they’re brought into custody, van Wormer said.

“The intent is that we’re holding these jail beds for people who need to be there,” she said. “In Spokane County, that often means property criminals. Violent property criminals.”

Spokane County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said money from the MacArthur Foundation, which has provided grants to programs in the public and private sector since its inception in 1970, will kick-start reform efforts that would have taken much longer without the group’s support.

“We could have done this alone, but to have that infusion of $1.75 million speeds up that process significantly,” O’Quinn said. “It moves us forward a good five years, at least.”

Mayor David Condon said the grant announcement was another step in the city and county’s collaboration on criminal justice reform, a process that has produced a so-called “Blueprint for Reform.”

“We’re being recognized, today, by the country,” Condon said.

O’Quinn said 65 percent of inmates in Spokane County Jail are awaiting trial. Safely reducing that population could mean the county doesn’t need to spend millions of dollars on a new detention center, a subject that’s frequently brought up in election years.

“The question is, can we reduce the jail population enough that we don’t have to make significant investments in a new facility, but improve and utilize what we already have?” O’Quinn said. “Only time will tell.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said the grant was an important step toward accomplishing criminal justice reform goals more than a decade in the making. But he cautioned that hiring new staff members with a one-time investment would require a long-term commitment from decision-makers at the city and county once that money was gone.

“Pre-Trial is the key to everything, so if you build your Pre-Trial services, based on one-time money, you had better ensure that you’re planning forward,” Knezovich said. “If that goes away, we’re back to square one.”

New policies also will be subject to review under a racial equity toolkit, similar to one already employed in Seattle, van Wormer said. Part of the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge is to combat policies that cause disparate treatment of ethnic groups.

Data collected as part of the collaboration with MacArthur over the past year showed that black inmates spent eight days longer in jail before trial than the average stay. Hispanic and Latino inmates spent five days longer, on average, and Native Americans four days longer.

Van Wormer said one of the policies that could benefit from evaluation by the toolkit is the recent decision to give jail inmates tablet computers, which would allow them to pay bail by credit or debit card. Lower-income inmates would likely not have access to paying bail by card, which means the policy change could have an adverse effect on members of a specific racial group, van Wormer said.

“That’s an example of how we could run a policy, or new idea, through this lens and see if we’re creating inadvertent discrepancies,” she said.

Future funding opportunities are available through the program, van Wormer said, though the MacArthur Foundation has not yet laid out how Spokane County and the city could apply for that money.

Other states, cities and counties receiving grants are: Charleston County, South Carolina; Harris County, Texas; Lucas County, Ohio; Milwaukee County, Wisconsin; New Orleans; New York City; Philadelphia; Pima County, Arizona; the state of Connecticut; and St. Louis County, Missouri.

The new investment will allow leaders to continue progress in reducing imprisonment as a catch-all solution for crime, van Wormer said.

“When communities can lessen their reliance on jails and prisons, it actually leads to healthier communities,” she said. “It makes communities more economically viable and stronger.”