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Sunday, February 23, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Beggs eyes criminal justice reform in Spokane budget proposals

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 13, 2019

The Spokane County Jail. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
The Spokane County Jail. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Is Spokane the new Brooklyn?

Not quite, but when it comes to criminal justice, the Lilac City could soon take a bite out of the Big Apple.

Making good on a centerpiece of his successful bid for City Council president in November, Councilman Breean Beggs introduced a set of proposals to kick-start deep reform to the city’s criminal justice system on Wednesday.

Through a series of revisions to Mayor David Condon’s proposed $1.1 billion 2020 budget, Beggs and fellow City Council members suggested rerouting money currently spent on housing inmates at the Spokane County Jail toward launching a pretrial supervision program for low-level offenders in municipal court.

The new approach is modeled, in part, on New York City’s Supervised Release Program, which Beggs and other Spokane County leaders on the Justice Task Force viewed firsthand during a trip to the East Coast last month. The central premise behind such programs is that it is cheaper, and more effective, to provide pretrial supervision of a person than to hold them in jail because they can not make bail.

The program is just one one piece of a 30-point set of budget revisions released by the City Council on Wednesday. The Council will vote on the 2020 budget at its meeting on Monday.

Supervised release program

In New York, Beggs saw that a courtroom will feature a prosecutor table, a defense table and a social worker table helmed by a nonprofit. Three years into its program, New York City reports a court appearance rate of 88%. About 92% of participants in the program avoid rearrest on felony charges.

“Our return rate is really quite dismal, and that leads to huge costs, and then if people aren’t reliable about showing up, we leave them in the jail for a long time – much longer than their actual sentence will be,” Beggs said.

Though a form of pretrial release, what the City Council has proposed is not like electronic ankle monitoring or house arrest. Rather, it aims to contract with a nonprofit to connect those released from jail by a judge with social services relevant to their needs, such as psychiatric or drug addiction treatment.

Beggs believes the council’s plan will reduce the burden on an already crowded Spokane County Jail.

“We’re hoping to partner with the county and lead by example and show them how they can save money, but (also) create more space for law enforcement and reduce crime,” Beggs said.

Maggie Yates, the county’s regional law and justice administrator, helped organize the trip to New York in response to the high level to interest from Justice Task Force members. She was not involved in Beggs’ proposal in the city of Spokane, but said generally such a program requires “broad support and buy-in” to be effective.

“The idea is really that individuals will show up to court and remain safely in the community if they are provided the opportunity to stabilize once they’re home,” Yates said.

An analysis of a single day at the Spokane County Jail in September found 447 inmates were held there due to a nonviolent misdemeanor, nonviolent felony or felony drug crime, according to research by the Justice Task Force. The task force estimates that it would cost $2,500 per person placed on supervised release, which lasts an average of 3 1/2 months. The cost of a stay in jail for that same duration is $25,200 per person, according to task force estimates.

Ultimately, it would be up to a judge to determine if pretrial supervision is an appropriate fit for the person accused of a misdemeanor.

“This is for people who are going to be stuck in jail but for $1,000, or even $100,” Beggs said.

The cost

The council’s proposal draws $250,000 from a balance of more than $1 million in funding from the public safety levy, which voters approved earlier this year. The funding would be used to pay for the planning and implementation of the pretrial supervision program.

Arguing that the mayor’s budget overestimates jail costs by nearly $1 million, Beggs also proposed redirecting $125,000 to fund housing at emergency homeless shelters for inmates who would otherwise be eligible for pretrial supervision if they had a permanent address.

The council’s proposal also suggests using $15,000 from the public safety levy to help community court participants obtain government identification, such as a birth certificate.

“The lack of photo identification is currently a substantial barrier to successful reentry and rehabilitation,’ said Councilwoman Lori Kinnear, who chairs the Public Safety and Community Health Committee.

Condon’s administration disagrees with Beggs’ budgetary assessment, noting that his administration’s estimates were based on discussions with the county, which may increase the rates it charges the city for jail services.

“The money doesn’t exist” for Beggs’ proposal, Condon said. “We have to negotiate a contract.”

Beggs said the county raising its rates is “unlikely,” and noted the city is only charged by the county for misdemeanor offenses.

“If we take some of that money and spend it on programs that reduce crime and failures to appear, we’ll actually continue to use less and less of the jail,” Beggs said.

That work is already underway in the municipal court, but “we need to do more and faster,” Beggs added.

The public safety levy provided $250,000 for criminal justice reform, as well as funding to hire 20 new police officers and retain 30 firefighters who had previously been funded through a grant. While Beggs believes the administration left levy money unspent, the balance in the levy funding is necessary to account for future salary and benefit increases for the newly-hired firefighters and police officers, the administration argues.

Philosophically, Condon said he does not disagree with exploring pretrial supervision, but said “you need to do this in an integrated fashion.” Condon questioned the city moving ahead on reforms alone and noted that it committed to collaboration with regional partners through the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, which was formed in 2012.

“We’re going back eight years again,” said Condon, who called Beggs’ proposal a “slap in the face” to the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council.

Beggs rebutted Condon’s claim and said the county is “excited that we’re doing this, and we’ve offered them the chance to move along with us.” He noted that Condon’s budget includes funding to certify the city’s planned municipal justice center as a jail, which would be a departure from integration with the county.

Condon also questioned why the city would rush forward to implement a program when “we have no definitive metrics” on their effectiveness.

“We have completely gone from a performance-based budget to a political budget,” Condon said.

Opportunity funds

Looking forward, the council plans to help fund its initiatives – including those related to criminal justice – through a new ordinance that would, on a quarterly basis, sweep unspent funds on vacant positions into “opportunity funds” dedicated to strategic initiatives, sustainability and crime reduction.

Condon questions the legality and practicality of such a mechanism, but council members accuse his administration of leaving positions open and redirecting the unused funds toward other city functions without returning to the City Council for authorization.

Condon denies any impropriety. He said the mechanism takes “no consideration” of how the city actually works and does not account for employee payouts and retirements.

“It is not a reality that you can sweep, on a quarterly basis, vacant positions,” Condon said. “I think it’s telling that this doesn’t apply to their own business unit in the City Council (or Public Safety).”

The process of establishing and operating the opportunity funds is, thus far, “very obtuse,” Condon argued.

“I generally can get the understanding of what an opportunity fund is, I get that, but how do you operate it, how is the money going to be distributed, who is going to run those grant programs? What’s going to be the cost of that?” Condon asked.

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