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Shawn Vestal: Building a bigger, better Spokane County Jail won’t necessarily solve overcrowding issue

Around 20,000 times a year, someone is released from the Spokane County Jail into the community.

Around 40 percent are people charged with crimes and released without bail, pending trial, according to an analysis of 2017 jail releases from the Vera Institute for Justice.

The next largest group – about 16 percent – are people who served a sentence on a conviction. Other inmates are released because they posted bond. Some went on to serve prison sentences. Some had their cases dismissed altogether; in some cases, no charge was filed.

Every release, from the least serious to the most, from allegation to conviction to dismissal, tells a different story.

But we apply the same blunt tool to every one: a jail cell, at a cost of $133 per day to the county.

Five years after the community produced a series of reform recommendations meant to reduce the jail population and seek alternatives to incarceration known as “Blueprints for Reform,” the jail is more crowded than ever.

Those reforms, produced after extensive community input and embraced by local leaders, urged the county to examine ways to resolve cases more quickly, expand pretrial community supervision to free up jail beds, eliminate racial disparities and offer a wider range of programs to address the underlying causes that jails are poorly equipped to address, such as mental illness, addiction and homelessness.

But we haven’t made much, if any, headway. The jail is more crowded than ever, and the county is again raising the possibility of building a new lockup – even as it carries forward with a seemingly contradictory project, funded by the MacArthur Foundation, to bring down jail use by identifying “effective alternatives to excessive jail incarceration.”

Some key officials are pushing hard against the reformers. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich argues we need a much bigger jail – more than triple the current size. And County Prosecutor Larry Haskell is charging crimes much more aggressively than other prosecutors around the state – and particularly with drug possession charges, which many other jurisdictions are often decriminalizing and approaching with diversion programs.

A coalition of local nonprofits, Smart Justice Spokane, has criticized the county’s process for analyzing a possible jail, sending a letter last month outlining a series of concerns and urging officials to pursue reforms seriously before reverting to a bigger jail. The County Commission has engaged the JFA Institute, a law-enforcement consultant, to produce the analysis that will lead to a proposal, perhaps within the year, for building a new jail.

This standoff – between “smart” justice and “tough” justice – is a familiar one. We’ve been here before. The jail is old and inefficient and unsafe, and even opponents of a new jail have concerns about the facility, pointing to a recent spate of in-custody deaths.

But they argue that if we simply add beds without rethinking why the jail is crowded, we’ll have another crowded jail very soon – without having made progress toward a cheaper, fairer, more effective system.

Tom Krzyminski, head of the county’s Public Defenders Office, said there’s a reason jail use tends to remain stubbornly high: The systemic default is jail, and trying alternatives is difficult.

“I think locking someone up is easy,” he said. “That’s the easy route to take. Trying to fix the issue is hard and takes hard work. … (Jailing people) doesn’t take a whole lot of effort, but it takes a whole lot of money.”

‘The most expensive’

Knezovich has been advocating for a new jail for years. In a podcast he recorded for Spokane Talks this week, he argued that the efforts to resist expanding the jail have left the county with inefficient, unsafe conditions.

He blames “activists” for the deaths in the podcast, and he notes that a review of the jail in the wake of recent deaths pointed the finger of blame, in part, for conditions in the facility. He says that the crowded jail is resulting in the release of too many suspects who should be held, driving up property crime rates.

He dismisses past efforts to expand pretrial services or use risk-assessment tools to attempt to lower the jail population. The jail has been triple-bunked for a long time now, filled way beyond its capacity, and we need many, many more jail beds, he said.

On this question, he is – as he often is – unambiguous. Kneovich thinks we need a much bigger jail, he says that failing to build a bigger jail is making the county less safe, and he has little use for some of the ideas put forth as alternatives.

But County Commissioner Al French, who formally placed the idea of a new jail on the table in January, insists he’s not sure we need a bigger jail – though he does believe we need a new one. He notes that the JFA Institute has consulted on jail projects that lowered jail populations and that it has a focus on “reducing mass incarceration.”

As one of the people who get the bills for the jail, he says, he wants fewer people in jail as well and supports many of the programs that would try to achieve that.

“However we affect this system, we need to make sure people who end up in jail are the people we want to be in jail because they represent a threat to our person or property,” he said.

In particular, he said, we should not use jail as a last resort for people whose key problems are addiction and mental illness.

“The last place I want to put them in is our jail. Of all the alternatives available, jail is the most expensive,” he said.

French raises the possibility that a new facility could actually work toward reducing incarceration by centralizing programs that would address the range of different issues that come through the jail doors.

Is it possible that the jail question is not an either-or, but a both?

Reformers are skeptical. Breean Beggs, a City Council member and smart justice proponent who ran unsuccessfully for prosecutor in 2014, said the idea of an entirely new kind of facility that centralizes services and offers alternatives to jail sounds good.

But the reality is that real change will require a change in mindset as much as a new building – one that is not forthcoming from the top decision-makers at the county. Hundreds of people sit in jail every day who could be safely released into the community, Beggs said, if we had more resources for tracking them and making sure they show up for their court hearings. We also continue to rent out 100-plus beds a day to the U.S. Marshals Service that we could try to free up for local use, he noted.

“Most of the problems in the jail result from overcrowding and we could solve that in two months if we wanted to,” Beggs said. “We know what we need to do. … Let’s do all that first, and then look at the right-sized facility.”

‘Adjust to fill’

Four years ago in Spokane, the average daily population in the jail was 834. This year, that reached 919.

One key reason, many say, is that Haskell’s office is sending many more drug-possession cases, charged at the highest discretionary level, than previous county prosecutors. Spokane County charges more possession cases – in raw numbers – than any other county in the state, by far. The filings have come at such a rate that the Public Defenders’ Office is overwhelmed – periodically putting a halt to assigning new cases to avoid exceeding court-mandated caseload limits.

Haskell, who did not return a message seeking comment for this column, has defended his high rate of charging as simply following the law and notes that it is not dissimilar from his predecessor’s.

Smart Justice Spokane, in its letter to county commissioners, called Haskell’s approach “draconian” and said if JFA evaluates the system as it operates now, it will inevitably skew toward building an unnecessarily large jail.

“Studies have demonstrated that criminal justice professionals adjust their policies and practices to increase incarceration rates when larger jails are built in their communities,” the Smart Justice Spokane letter said. “The policies and practices of, particularly the Spokane County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, will undoubtedly adjust in an effort to fill any larger jail facility without any additional benefit to public safety or community health.”

The coalition also points out that there is reason to think that we will be able to bring down the jail population in the near future as a result of efforts to reduce the number of people held on bail and increased mental health funding from the state. Another factor is the county’s ongoing participation in the national Safety and Justice Challenge, funded by the MacArthur Foundation.

Maggie Yates is the head of that project, which is aimed specifically at reducing the jail population. She has been coordinating some community meetings, sharing data gathered by the Vera Institute for Justice about our jail and gathering community feedback. She said that we are still using the jail as a kind of last resort for problems jails don’t really fix.

“We’re just generally relying on our criminal justice system to solve issues it’s not meant to solve,” she said.

Pretrial supervision

Most of the people in the jail have been charged with a crime, many of which are misdemeanors, and remain in jail because they can’t post bail. In other words, a judge deemed them safe for community release if they could afford to post a bond. A jail census taken on June 6 showed that this population represented 58 percent of those being held.

That is where reformers believe we can reduce our reliance on jail through better risk assessment and pretrial supervision. To them, the stubbornly high jail population is a signal that we’re using the jail as last resort for problems of addiction, mental illness, homelessness and poverty.

A robust community supervision program is a key to a seemingly successful new jail built in Montgomery County, Maryland. That jail, built upon the recommendations of JFA Institute, has a much smaller population than ours in a community with a larger overall population.

French points to that as one reason for people to keep an open mind about the county’s process. He says his goal is not to build a bigger jail – it’s to build a cheaper one and to use some of the savings to offer programs and services that reform proponents advocate.

“I’ve got a jail that’s functionally obsolescent and expensive to operate,” he said. “I think we need a new jail. I just don’t know what size it needs to be.”

There are others who support systemic reforms and also see the need for a new jail facility. Krzyminski, the chief public defender, recognizes that there are serious problems with the jail. But he said it’s important to rethink a lot of our priorities and see if we can’t design a system that better addresses the range of problems among the jail population.

“Right now, we move everyone into the same system, whether you’re charged with first-degree murder or burglary or theft,” he said. “You’re kind of on the same track.”

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