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Shawn Vestal: Spokane Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s ‘get tough’ policies hinder successful Drug Court

In 2014, a commission of law enforcement experts issued recommendations for how Spokane County could reduce the jail population and improve its criminal justice system.

One key recommendation in the “Blueprints for Reform” report: Expand the county’s drug court – which the commission called a “pocket of excellence” – to divert more chronic, drug-addicted, nonviolent offenders into rigorous, structured drug treatment. The program has proven to be much more effective than incarceration in getting repeat offenders to stop repeating.

Three years later, due primarily to the policies of Prosecutor Larry Haskell, we’re going the other way. Haskell has tightened the reins on offering drug court to defendants, and caseloads have dropped from an average of 115 in the years before he took office to about 75.

Haskell says he is fulfilling his promise to voters to be tough on property crimes and chronic offenders and that he views drug court as more appropriate for defendants without long criminal records. This is the opposite of what drug court supporters say it does best, which is to stop addicted, nonviolent, chronic offenders from committing more crimes.

The jail, meanwhile, overflows. On Wednesday, 961 people were locked up, about 80 over capacity and average for this year.

The prosecutor’s policy is a wrench in the gears of a countywide effort to be smarter and more effective about justice. That effort is being driven in part by a $1.75 million grant from the McArthur Foundation to reduce the jail population and develop alternatives to incarceration. Drug court is only one part of many, and other reforms are underway with the prosecutor’s support, according those involved in the effort.

But shrinking the drug court caseload is not what “smart justice” supporters consider smart. In drug court, a defendant agrees to undergo a yearlong course of intensive treatment in a “non-adversarial” court process, involving regular appearances before a judge. It’s not jail, but neither is it “incarceration lite,” said Zachary Hamilton, an assistant professor of criminology at Washington State University.

“Drug court is really, really intensive,” he said. “It’s not a walk in the park.”

It also works.

“Drug court literature that goes back across many states to the 1990s suggests that drug courts should be used for the highest-risk individuals,” he said.

Hamilton completed a study of Spokane County’s drug court in December. It compared drug court defendants with historical averages. It found that 25 percent of the drug court group “graduated” from the program, and those graduates were 90 percent less likely than typical defendants to be charged with another drug crime and 85 percent less likely to be charged with another property crime.

A separate 2013 review showed that 11 percent of those who graduated from Spokane County’s drug court reoffended within two years. Of those who quit or were terminated, 36 percent reoffended.

Of those who were qualified but chose not to enter drug court, 51 percent reoffended.

“We are returning the defendants to being positive, taxpaying citizens, which is more than we can say for jailing them,” said Sandra Altshuler, coordinator of the county’s alternative courts. “It’s very structured, it’s rigorous and it requires a lot of the participant, which makes it ideal for these high-risk offenders.”

Since Haskell took office in 2015, though, he’s instituted new policies that put fewer high-risk repeat offenders into drug court.

“There’s a balance I’m trying to strike between treatment and public safety,” he said this week. “I promised people I would aggressively prosecute chronic property criminals.”

Haskell’s office is still recommending hundreds of cases each year for drug court, he said. But when it comes to offenders with an “offender score” of 9 or greater – a measure that takes in the number of prior felonies and other factors – his office will only approve drug court with the direct approval of Haskell or his deputy. This means fewer “high-risk, high-needs” offenders end up in drug court.

“The goal of the McArthur Grant we received was to reduce the jail population, and if you look at the numbers, we’re not accomplishing that,” said Spokane County Public Defender Tom Krzyminski.

He doesn’t blame Haskell’s office for that entirely. He said that smart-justice approaches run against deeply held ideas about being “tough” on crime.

But it’s an expensive, ineffective toughness.

“Locking people up and paying $123 a day at the jail – that’s easy,” Krzyminski said. “That’s the easy way out.”

Haskell – who is hoping to be appointed as the region’s U.S. attorney by the Trump administration – said he believes drug court is effective, but differs about which offenders should be directed into it. An offender with multiple felony convictions has had a couple chances at treatment within the system by the time they rack up a high offender score, he said.

If they continue to commit crimes and “create new victims on a frequent basis,” then he says they should get their treatment inside the Department of Corrections system – not out in the community.

“We’ve become immune to the fact of what a felony really is,” he said. “It’s a serious matter.”

Bottom line: he believes that it’s better to use diversion programs and alternative courts for those with fewer offenses.

“I think, and other prosecutors around the country think, that early intervention is best,” he said.

Hamilton’s report on the county drug court said researchers found “strong and convincing evidence” of the drug court’s effectiveness, and particularly with what you might call later intervention. It also cited Haskell’s policies as a hindrance, noting that it “makes the program largely inaccessible to the offenders who may derive the most significant benefits from it.”