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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Editorial

Pretrial tool a key to reform

The United States is incarceration nation, locking up people at five times the average rate of other modern countries. The U.S. has about 4.4 percent of the world’s population, but more than 20 percent of its prisoners. Yet, the crime rate is still relatively high.

Criminal justice reformers are correct in saying the lock-’em-up model isn’t working.

There is a reform movement underway that is swinging the spotlight over to the initial encounters the system has with offenders, and it’s asking the right questions:

* Are we sticking people in jail because there is no other place for them?

* Are some people jailed and others freed based solely on the affordability of bail?

* Are we jailing people who are of no risk to society?

* Are we jailing people and ignoring the underlying factors that compel them to break laws in the first place? For instance, is our property crime problem really a drug problem?

The answers to those questions are yes, so reformers are looking for smarter responses that won’t irretrievably damage the lives of offenders, create more crime victims and squander tax dollars.

Some states are discontinuing money bail because of the inherent unfairness. Nearly half of felony defendants stay in jail because the bond is too high. This is an issue worthy of consideration, but it will take input at the state level.

In the coming days, Spokane County Superior Court will adopt a risk assessment tool to help judges consider options for defendants in the pretrial phase. Eventually, district and municipal courts also will have the tool. Judges are not obligated to use it.

In essence, the tool is a score that’s assigned to each defendant. The score is derived from evidence-based factors that determine the likelihood of defendants being a risk to others or whether they will show up for the next court date.

Risk factors include: current charge, criminal history, employment status, substance abuse, permanent address and a working phone.

The Spokane Regional Law & Justice Council, which is made up of city and county officials, was able to land a coveted $1.75 million MacArthur Foundation grant to revamp pretrial services. Officials hope to reduce the jail population by 17 percent through 2018, and by 21 percent the following year.

A total of 191 jurisdictions applied for the grants. Spokane County is one of only 10 core sites to land one. So the risk assessment tool could turn out to be a model for the rest of the country.

Two-thirds of the people in Spokane County Jail at any given time are awaiting trial. The longer they stay, the more apt they are to become criminals. If they’re never jailed in the first place and directed to needed services, they’re less likely to reoffend. A night in jail costs taxpayers about $125.

Pretrial is crucial, and Spokane County is wisely beefing up services.

Incredibly, only 10 percent of U.S. counties have pretrial services, so it’s no wonder we’re incarceration nation.

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