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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

McMorris Rodgers tells local officials House-passed prison reform bill ‘a step’ to address overcrowding

FILE - Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, R-Wash., accompanied by other members of Congress, speaks during a news conference Saturday, Jan. 20, 2018, at Capitol Hill in Washington. (Jose Luis Magana / AP)

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers told a roundtable of local officials Wednesday that a federal prison reform bill passed by Congress last week was “an idea whose time has come.”

“We need to take some action,” McMorris Rodgers told a gathering at the Spokane Police Department’s building on Gardner Street. “I recognize it’s not everything, but it’s a step.”

A group that included a Spokane county commissioner, local judges, representatives from City Hall and criminal justice reform advocates told the congresswoman not to neglect efforts that keep people out of prison in the first place, citing successful local efforts to divert people from incarceration.

The legislation, backed by President Donald Trump and senior adviser Jared Kushner, has been cited as the first significant reform of the federal prison system since 2010, when Congress lessened sentencing disparities for drug crimes involving “crack” and powdered cocaine based on concerns the differences were creating racial disparities in prison sentences. The new bill calls for the creation of a national “risk assessment” tool to determine which inmates are most likely to commit new crimes, reduces jail time for inmates who take part in counseling and drug treatment programs while behind bars, and dedicates $50 million to fund those programs each year through 2023.

Wednesday’s meeting was a follow-up session to a forum the congresswoman held at Gonzaga University last fall addressing criminal reform issues. It occurred a few hours before Trump tweeted that he had discussed the issue in the Oval Office with fellow reality show personality Kim Kardashian.

The bill, co-sponsored by McMorris Rodgers, passed the House of Representatives last week with more than 130 Democrats joining Republicans in support. But civil rights groups, and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate, have argued the bill doesn’t go far enough by failing to reduce mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related and other nonviolent crimes, which they argue is contributing to the country’s staggering incarceration rate compared with other developed nations.

According to the most recent edition of the World Prison Population List, a British survey of incarceration rates for 223 countries, the United States’ rate of 698 people imprisoned per 100,000 citizens is nearly five times the international average.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno noted that the federal justice system is different from the state system, which is responsible for much of the burden on the aging and frequently overcrowded Spokane County Jail. She noted that, at the state and local levels, reforms have been focused on what happens before a person is sentenced, including the county’s own risk assessment tool developed as part of a grant received from the MacArthur Foundation and a community court system that matches low-level offenders with social services.

“I think what we have thought about, long and hard, and recognized that there is a correct way to do this, is to deal with people coming in the front door,” Moreno said.

Critics of the federal bill have seized on that lack of what is known as “front-end” reform, in particular federal criminal statutes that mandate life sentences for a third drug offense conviction in what is known as the “three-strike” rule, and 10-year sentence minimums for certain drug crimes. A companion piece of legislation in the Senate, authored by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, eliminates the three-strike rule and gives judges more leeway in deviating from mandatory minimums.

That bill has yet to make it out of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, but its provisions are expected to be part of the discussion as the chamber takes up discussion on the House-passed legislation.

McMorris Rodgers declined to say after Wednesday’s meeting if she’d support a version of the legislation that included reductions in mandatory minimum sentences.

“I’d have to take a look at it,” she said.

The congresswoman said she hadn’t reviewed the Senate’s proposal.

McMorris Rodgers’ Democratic challenger for her seat in Congress, Lisa Brown, said Wednesday she shared the concerns expressed by the NAACP, that the bill could make racial disparities in sentencing worse by excluding perpetrators of certain crimes from taking advantage of the credit-for-good-time provisions of the new law.

“I totally understand that you don’t get everything you want in legislation,” said Brown, who noted that she preferred the Senate language. “But that is a big concern that is in this legislation.”

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell applauded the bill’s focus on providing services to inmates, saying that’s something he hasn’t seen in the state system.

“It pays more attention to the back end than the state has ever dreamed of, as far as I know,” Haskell said. “We have people who are getting out, and they didn’t get anything, no programming.”

McMorris Rodgers said her focus, following the meeting, would be to ensure the program receives its funding in the next round of federal appropriations bills.

“The fact that this passed the House does mean that we’ve created some momentum,” she said. “But it also means that there’s opportunities to continue this discussion.”