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Shawn Vestal: Between officials and reformers, a growing rift in efforts to improve Spokane’s criminal justice system

FILE – This aerial view of the Spokane County Courthouse shows it Saturday, Oct. 26, 2013. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

When Spokane was awarded $1.75 million in 2016 to combat jail crowding and racial bias in the justice system, it seemed like another jewel in the crown of the community’s efforts to create a smarter, fairer system.

We have plenty to be proud of on that front, with a decade of work to find more efficient and effective ways to dispense justice, including therapeutic courts and efforts aimed at speedier case resolution. But two years after the award from the MacArthur Foundation, a significant breach has opened up between leaders of Spokane’s communities of color and the nearly all-white board of community leaders overseeing the grant work.

It’s an unfortunate irony: A program intended in large part to examine why Spokane disproportionately arrests and jails people of color is losing key allies in communities of color.

“I feel duped,” said Sandy Williams, the editor of the Black Lens newspaper and a member of the state Commission on African-American Affairs. “I feel totally duped.”

Williams and 10 other representatives of Spokane organizations, including the NAACP, Smart Justice Spokane and the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship, sent a sharply worded letter to the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council in March, demanding project data that had been gathered so far and expressing their “frustration, dissatisfaction and disappointment.”

The letter was sent under the letterhead of the group Spokane Community Against Racism (or SCAR). It went on to say, “the community’s desire to be collaborative partners in the jail reform process has been met with resistance, deflection, avoidance, and at times with what has appeared to be outright hostility.”

Their criticisms range from a failure to include more people of color at the decision-making table to a resistance – or sometimes refusal – to respond to questions or requests for information.

“It took months and months and months just to get budget documents,” said the Rev. Walter Kendricks, pastor of Morning Star Baptist Church and president of the Spokane Ministers’ Fellowship. “It took us months and months and months to get anything we asked for.”

The MacArthur work is overseen by the SRLJC, a body made up almost entirely of top officials from the city, county, law enforcement agencies and courts. Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, a veteran of several Spokane justice reform efforts, is on the council as well as the decision-making administrative committee.

She said the council tried to engage communities of color by creating a subcommittee specifically dedicated to racial and ethnic disparities – a move that goes beyond what other communities who have received MacArthur grants have done. She and others working on the grant project said that officials have tried to be responsive, but that project data is still being gathered and that progress has sometimes lagged behind expectations.

Among the frustrations: There’s been no real movement yet on one of the chief goals – reducing the jail population.

Moreno said the bad blood became more apparent over the past year. During that time, the county has been slow to replace the key project administrator, work on the grant has slowed, data collection and analysis has proven more difficult than initially hoped. While she and others said that the grant funding is important, ongoing work, there has been frustration all around at the pace of progress.

Of those who signed the SCAR letter, she said, “There’s no trust. They don’t trust us. I don’t know how we go about winning back or earning that trust. … We’re at odds, and it’s a very uncomfortable place to be because we all want the same things.”

‘The perfect time’

The MacArthur grant was not Spokane’s first dip into the waters of criminal justice reform. A decade ago, with the county facing the possibility of needing a new jail, officials began talking about rethinking who we put in jail, why and for how long, with an emphasis on finding other ways to address nonviolent offenses and mental health.

The result has been several campaigns to save money and intervene with people committing lower-level offenses to prevent them from entering the revolving door at the jail. The Otto Zehm case brought additional focus to bear.

“The MacArthur funding came at the perfect time, because at that time we were already sitting down and talking,” Moreno said.

The grant was part of the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which funds efforts by communities to rethink the use of jails, as more and more evidence mounts that an overreliance on jails for nonviolent offenses, for court-appearance failures and nonpayment of fines and as an alternative of last resort for a lack of mental health care, is both expensive and unjust.

The primary goals of the project in Spokane were threefold: to reduce the jail population, to reduce the length of stay in the jail and to combat racial and ethnic disparities in the system. Critics say far too little has been devoted to racial disparity; defenders of the grant work say that some critics may have unrealistic expectations about how much of the work will target race and how quickly concrete results will arrive.

One goal is to gather more thorough data about every step of the criminal justice system through a lens of race. But the evidence already makes clear that Spokane, like most places, has a problem: A 2014 analysis found that African-American and Native American adults were kept in jail while awaiting trial at a rate more than six times higher than that of white people. African-Americans and Native Americans were arrested at roughly five times the rate of white people in Spokane.

Data challenges

Criminology professor Jacqueline van Wormer was hired initially as the administrator of the grant project. An academic with a career interest in combating systemic bias in the justice system as well as someone with expertise in data management, she was in many ways the community point person on the project as well.

“I care deeply about addressing racial inequities within our criminal justice and social services systems and I’ve committed a lot of my adult professional life to it,” van Wormer said.

There were tensions from the start between local leaders of the project and some minority voices in town. The main body of the SRLJC is composed, under state law, of representatives from the different quarters of the system; Williams and others sought to have members of minority communities included. When organizers formed a specific committee for racial and ethnic disparities, they felt as if it was a gesture of tokenism, without real authority.

Almost a year ago, van Wormer stepped down as the administrator to take a position at Whitworth University; it’s expected to be another two months before a replacement is hired. In that vacuum, the schism has worsened dramatically.

Williams, Kendricks and others said that their efforts to ask questions of the council or participate at meetings have often run into a wall and that when the racial and ethnic disparity subcommittee, or other members of the community, ask questions or seek information about the data being gathered, they are rebuffed or ignored. Some representatives of the council say they have been approached with anger and hostility by critics.

A key point of contention has grown up around the data. At the start of the project, organizers had high hopes for providing regular updates on the data being gathered throughout the county’s police, courts and jail systems. Van Wormer said that due to a variety of factors, that pace of data analysis and release has not been possible.

Neither the city nor county has devoted resources to uniting all the different local databases into a single, workable whole, which would require investments in systems and expertise. There is a lot of information siloed in very different systems, including the police department, the courts and the jail.

“The county and the city have not invested any resources in making this a priority,” Moreno said.

Several other communities that have received MacArthur grants are already preparing detailed reports. Spokane is forwarding raw data to a university group that is evaluating data from all MacArthur grant communities and waiting for it to be analyzed and returned. That has taken longer than expected.

Williams, Kendricks and the other signatories to the SCAR letter have continually raised a lack of transparency as the problem. In their March 26 letter to the SRLJC, they asked for racial and ethnicity data across all local systems – which was an initial goal of the grant project – and for budgetary information.

The response from the county only deepened their dissatisfaction. County officials treated the letter as a public records request, responding in a bureaucratic manner and ignoring the complaints about the way that SCAR members say they have been treated.

‘It’s frustrating work’

It is in some ways representative of a Spokane racial dynamic that people of color say is common: A white authority structure that has a limited patience and understanding of their concerns, which tends to think that the occasional meeting or symbolic gesture is sufficient.

Moore, the head of PJALS, has been in a lot of those communities over the years.

“The reality is there’s a history of community members of color not being listened to and of things being called ‘community engagement’ actually being just PowerPoint presentations,” she said.

She said she’s convinced there is a “lack of priority and commitment” among council members to truly addressing racial disparities. Saving money at the jail is the much higher priority.

Van Wormer said she believes that the council’s critics have a sense of “justified urgency.” But she also said trying to reform large systems with deeply ingrained patterns, as well as leaders who may not agree on the best approaches, is an arduous task that might take years to show even modest results. Sometimes that reality crashes into that sense of urgency.

“It’s hard work, and it’s frustrating work,” she said.

The grant work is ongoing, and even those who say it’s going slowly remain optimistic about the chances for progress. A key piece of the project involves adopting the “racial equity toolkit” across agencies; the toolkit is a way to front-load considerations of racial equity at every decision-point in the system, to make sure that such considerations are not overlooked.

Patrick Griffin, the MacArthur Foundation’s project manager for Spokane, said the grants are set up primarily to bring together people inside the justice system – police, courts, prosecutors, jailers. If there is less community engagement than some people might want, some of it stems from that structural makeup.

But overall, he said the work in Spokane has gone well, and the team is working to gather data and forward it to the foundation’s data contractor. Spokane has sought an extension to complete the work, but that’s not unusual or problematic, he said. And the fact that Spokane is involved at all, in the context of its history, makes the community one of the country’s leaders on this question, he said.

“I think the team in Spokane is doing a great job,” he said. “They’ve tackled something very tough, and as far as the nation is concerned, they’re at the leading edge.”

The communications breakdown, though, reflects some of the larger, underlying tensions in Spokane. It has become, unfortunately, a symbol of the way that many people of color feel they are treated by institutions and authorities in Spokane.

For the effort to truly succeed in the long term, it cannot alienate communities of color. There is agreement on all sides – from Moreno and Kendricks and van Wormer and Williams alike – that some resolution is needed, but little optimism that one is near.

“I think it’s a hard problem to solve,” Williams said. “But if you’re trying to solve the problem without the people in the room who are affected by the problem, you’re setting yourself up to fail.”

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