Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell says he’s on board with the county’s ambitious plan to reduce jail overcrowding using a $1.75 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, so long as the end result doesn’t compromise public safety.
The county announced the new funding in mid-April and has set a goal of reducing the jail population 21 percent over the next three years while reducing racial disparities. The bulk of those reductions are expected to occur by adding staff to the county’s pretrial services department while using a new, evidence-based risk assessment tool to decide who can safely be let out of jail before trial.
“Between the two tools I have a reasonable degree of confidence that we’re going to be able to identify people that test out low risk,” Haskell said. But, he added, “As the prosecutor, I’m ever mindful of the fact that low risk does not translate to no risk.”
A coalition of city and county officials – including judges, public defenders, prosecutors in county and city courts and jail staff – is working together to implement the grant.
Two-thirds of jail inmates last year were awaiting trial, compared with just under half in 2012. The average daily jail population last year was 965 people in a facility designed for 620, said Jacqueline van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator.
The grant also is aimed at reducing the disproportion of racial minorities in jail. In Spokane County, Native Americans and African-Americans are jailed at seven and 8.5 times the rate of whites, respectively, and they generally have longer stays in jail.
The current pretrial services department provides a report on inmates awaiting trial, which includes criminal history and any ties to Spokane, including family, a job and length of residence. Prosecutors typically use that information when deciding whether to argue for bail and where to set it.
But that tool is subjective and results in people being held in jail more because of their income than their actual danger to public safety, van Wormer said. A wealthy person accused of a serious crime may be able to post a $250,000 bond with little difficulty.
“Then we have those other individuals that sit in jail on a $1,000 bond” for much less serious crimes, van Wormer said.
Part of the grant funding will be used for a new evidence-based risk assessment tool, which is being created by a Washington State University professor and specifically tailored to the Spokane County Jail population. That tool will provide a risk score based on a suspect’s mental health history, criminal past, employment history and other psychological factors to decide if the person should be held in jail prior to trial, or if they should be referred to other programs.
That tool should lead to more recommendations for monitored release from jail. It will be used starting this summer if the grant stays on schedule.
City Prosecutor Justin Bingham said it’s important to tell the public about the tool’s successes, such as someone being able to keep a job or housing because they’re not in jail.
“Things will happen and people will attack this stuff as being soft on crime,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s based on analytics.”
Haskell said the county’s pretrial services department is understaffed and uses phone calls rather than in-person visits to check in with suspects awaiting trial. That makes prosecutors reluctant to release people, even if they’re at low risk for reoffending.
“One of the problems we’ve had historically is lack of ability to give effective monitoring when they’re out,” Haskell said.
Using MacArthur grant funds, the county plans to hire six additional pretrial services staff. State grant funding for diverting people with mental illnesses from jail will cover another two positions.
Haskell said prosecutors generally will follow the recommendation of the risk assessment tool, though he said it’s important to retain some flexibility for discretion. He anticipates recommending release for most people who have a low-risk score and are nonviolent, nonchronic offenders, he said.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to use this evidence-based science,” he said. If the new program produces more problems than anticipated, “then I will be moving to tighten it up,” he said.
Spokane County applied for more funding than it received from the MacArthur Foundation and was hoping to hire three new jail mental health care providers. Though those were cut from the grant, the jail is working to hire one new jail mental health care provider using funding from the state Department of Social and Health Services. Another new position will be funded from fines Superior Court Judge Sam Cozza has ordered Eastern State Hospital to pay for failing to evaluate inmates within timelines set by state law.
Some grant funds will be used to set up a so-called “portability” team of a judge, prosecutor and public defender who can cover cases from municipal, district and superior courts at the same time. Right now, it’s possible for someone to be arrested with separate charges in two or three courts from the same incident. People often miss court dates and end up with warrants because they don’t understand they need to appear in court more than once, van Wormer said.
Under the new system, someone with charges in multiple courts from the same incident will be able to appear before the new judge and receive one bond or set of release conditions and one person to monitor them.
“We’re hoping to cut down on all the chaos,” van Wormer said.
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