Five years ago Spokane County invested “hundreds of hours of public and agency testimony, research and hearings” toward the creation of “A Blueprint for Reform.” At more than 250 pages, the document is available for review on the county’s website. “The Blueprint” is often cited whenever criminal justice reform re-enters the community spotlight.
Such was the case earlier this month when Chad Sokol reported on Spokane County’s need for a new jail ( “French: It’s time to build new jail,” Jan. 3). In the article, county Commissioner Al French proposed building a new jail. He mentioned, “this can has been kicked down the road for too many years,” before adding that he needs to know an exact number of beds. The implication is that once the number is known then building can begin.
But five years ago the Blueprint for Reform advocated against building a jail, instead recommending that the county focus on diversion programs and “community-based alternatives.” There was one caveat: Should reforms fail, in other words if recidivism does not decrease and if the jail population goes up, then a third party would re-evaluate the need for a new jail. At November’s Facilities Committee meeting, the public was informed that a third-party evaluation was only just beginning. In light of this, Commissioner French’s decision to draft a proposal now is premature at best and suspicious at worst.
For the past five years there have been reforms such as Community Court, Drug Court, Veterans Court and Early Case Resolution. There has also been an increase in opioid addiction, an uptick in mental health needs, a slow recovery from a major recession, an increasing county population and a decision to house U.S. marshal holds at the county jail. A new jail will not offer a solution to these societal issues. French says we need a number for beds – let’s take a look at who is filling those beds now and what more beds might mean.
Between June 2017 and August 2018, eight people died in the Spokane County Jail. The causes of death vary, from suicide to homicide to drug withdrawal and lack of medication. Late last year, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich made a presentation to the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council. He was quite blunt, telling the council that they had blood on their hands – and the sheriff isn’t wrong. Five years of “kicking a can down a road” while waiting out a suggested time frame and inconsistently funding reform efforts does suggest more than a few unclean hands.
Non-incarcerated individuals who have visited the county jail report it is cold, dismal and unsafe, some describing it as “a pit.” It’s tempting to think, so what? Criminals get what they deserve. But consider this: In 2015, 579 individuals were held pretrial. These Spokanites had yet to receive a trial, but they were locked up in a cold, dismal place without being found guilty.
Commissioner French provided a simplistic view of the situation when he said that one side is “chanting for a jail” while another wants to let everyone go free. The truth is that we all have a stake in how the county chooses to dispense justice, not just activists, politicians or criminal justice professionals. As a community, we owe ourselves a look at the financial, social and moral obligations and consequences of building a new facility. It is far more than a number of beds.
To his credit, the commissioner did say that the community needs to come together and decide what the facility will look like and what services it might offer. What the commissioner did not say is that we live in a country where people are presumed to be innocent. That person in the county jail might be a co-worker, a grandchild, a wife, husband or someone you don’t know who may have broken into your car. Whoever they are, they are innocent until proved guilty and innocent people deserve a safe place, not necessarily a bigger one.
If you would like to make certain that the presumption of innocence remains a part of Spokane’s incarceration conversation, then please attend the first of many constructive conversations. The NAACP is hosting “The Presumption of Innocence,” a panel of community members and legal professionals, on the evening of Jan. 22 at Gonzaga University. <facebook.com/spokane.naacp>
Annemarie Frohnhoefer is a former member of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council’s Racial Equity Committee.