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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Behind the divide on bail reform, frustration over ‘revolving door’

Building A is seen through the window of a multipurpose room at the Geiger Corrections Center on Feb. 7, 2019. The minimum-security lockup was converted from old U.S. Army barracks to hold inmates as Spokane County’s downtown jail became overcrowded. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Chad Sokol and Will Campbell The Spokesman-Review

On the afternoon of April 27, Jordan Knippling emerged from his room at MultiCare Valley Hospital, kicked over a linen basket and grabbed a brand-new electrocardiogram machine.

Knippling had checked himself into the hospital saying he thought he had a broken rib. Agitated, the 39-year-old allegedly tried to throw the $30,000 EKG machine, but a nurse practitioner stopped him. According to court records, Knippling turned and threw several punches before nurses and security staff subdued him.

Knippling, who has an extensive criminal record, had been released from prison less than six months earlier after years of incarceration. After the incident at the hospital, sheriff’s deputies arrested him on suspicion of assault. He told Spokane County Superior Court staff he suffers from schizophrenia but hadn’t been taking his medications.

Four days after Knippling was taken into custody, then-Court Commissioner Steven Grovdahl ordered him released on his own recognizance. In other words, no bond was set, and Knippling simply promised to appear at his next hearing.

On May 10, Knippling was arrested again on suspicion of stabbing his roommate in the arm, shoulder, abdomen, back and neck. Hospital staff told a detective they had removed enough blood to fill a wine bottle from the victim’s lungs, but he survived. Knippling now faces an additional charge of attempted murder and remains jailed in lieu of a $1 million bond.

Incidents like this frustrate local law enforcement officials including Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who says Knippling should have been held in jail after the hospital incident.

Grovdahl could have imposed cash bail, which would have kept Knippling in jail unless he could afford to pay his bond or reach a deal with a commercial bail bond agency. And if Knippling were in jail, he couldn’t have stabbed his roommate.

Knippling’s back-to-back arrests, the sheriff says, exemplify a justice system that has become too lenient on violent offenders, including those with behavioral health issues, at the expense of public safety. In a recent interview, Knezovich said cash bail is a necessary tool for protecting the community and ensuring defendants show up to court.

“We’ve developed a system in our communities … where cloaked in the veil of being compassionate, we aren’t holding people accountable,” he said.

Complaints about the “revolving door” of the county jail are not new. But according to Knezovich, the problem recently has reached new heights.

“This has gone beyond property crimes now,” he said. “And it’s becoming deadly.”

Bail system ‘indefensible’

On any given day, more than two-thirds of people in Spokane County’s custody have not been convicted and are not serving sentences. They are legally innocent, awaiting trial or an offer of a plea deal. Many, if not most, of them remain incarcerated because they can’t afford bail.

It’s a situation common in jails across the country, which some activists call the “front door” of mass incarceration. Some activists say cash bail creates a two-tiered justice system in which poor defendants remain locked up while rich ones can pay to get out.

“Cash bail criminalizes poverty, devastating low-income communities and disproportionately affecting women and people of color,” the Bail Project, a New York-based nonprofit that recently began working in Spokane, says on its website. “Pretrial detention accounts for all jail growth in the U.S. in the past 20 years. We cannot end mass incarceration without addressing our indefensible bail system.”

The Bail Project operates in communities across the country, paying to bail people out of jail and connecting them with resources such as addiction and mental health treatment. Bail Project spokesman Camilo Ramirez said the nonprofit has provided bail assistance to more than 100 low-income people in Spokane County’s custody.

The Bail Project says its data prove that cash bail isn’t necessary. The organization says 96% of its clients return to court.

Research shows that people held before trial are more likely to be convicted. One explanation is that defendants are more eager to accept plea deals if it means they can finally get out of jail.

Those who are released, meanwhile, tend to achieve more favorable judgments because they can hold onto jobs, stay on medications, stay connected with their families and participate more effectively in their legal defense.

“When someone is locked up and can’t afford to pay their bail, terrible things happen. Even one night in jail can cause someone to lose their job, their home and even custody of their children,” the Bail Project says. “For many, it can jeopardize immigration status. And just a few nights in jail risks serious, irrevocable physical and mental harm.”

The commercial bail bonds industry – an American innovation legal in only one other country, the Philippines – has lobbied against reforms across the United States, though cash bail recently has been eliminated or restricted in California, Arizona, New Jersey and Washington, D.C.

Cash bail has become a focal point of broader discussions about the future of the Spokane County Jail, which has been overcrowded for the better part of two decades.

Some in Spokane have taken up the cause of bail reform, saying the community should fundamentally reconsider its reliance on incarceration, especially for those awaiting trial. In March, community members met at a church in north Spokane to oppose any effort to build a new jail.

‘Cost of doing business’

Local law enforcement officials say lowering or eliminating bonds would only fuel complaints about “catch and release” policing.

Sgt. Pat Bloomer, of the Spokane Valley Police Department, a division of the sheriff’s office, said he could name at least a dozen people who routinely commit property crimes such as thefts, burglaries and vehicle prowlings.

Bloomer said it’s how they make a living, and they accept being arrested as a “cost of doing business.”

“We keep seeing the same people over and over,” Bloomer said. “I have to be the one who has to deal with victims who are wondering why they can’t have nice things in their cars.”

Bloomer said houses where habitual offenders live also drain police resources. One house in the 900 block of North Burns Road has been the subject of 110 calls since February, he said.

Deputies have arrested 16 people on the property, and Bloomer said nine of them were released without bail and went back to the home to continue selling drugs and stealing property.

“These houses monopolize our time,” he said.

Knezovich said he believes those who commit property and drug crimes are likely to turn violent at some point. He and Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl dismissed concerns about economic disparities created by the cash bail system.

Meidl, in an interview, said those who routinely commit property crimes generally don’t have legitimate jobs. He said judges and court rules should treat property crimes as a danger to the community for the purposes of setting bonds.

“If they are going to continue to victimize the community, then I would like to see those bonds raised,” he said.

In an email, local attorney Jeffry Finer wrote: “Bail is protected by centuries of case law and deep constitutional protections. That law enforcement conclude someone’s dangerous may be warranted and correct. But the constitution requires a judge make that finding. Otherwise it’s called a police state.”

Frustration boils over

Tensions over cash bail flared last month when Knezovich’s office repeatedly named Grovdahl, the former court commissioner, in a news release headlined “Arrested, Booked, Right Back Out on the Streets of Our Community.”

The news release, which was posted on the sheriff’s office Facebook page and picked up by local TV stations, referred to a series of arrests at the Spokane Valley home of 51-year-old Gary B. Olive, who has an extensive criminal record.

In March 2018, deputies arrested Olive and five other people during a SWAT raid at his house in the 600 block of North Farr Road. Olive was charged with three counts of drug possession with intent to deliver. His bond was set at $60,000, and he spent 56 days in jail before pleading guilty to three lesser counts of conspiracy to deliver drugs. He was released after a judge sentenced him to the 56 days he had already served in jail.

This March, deputies served Olive with several “chronic nuisance property” notices after neighbors complained of suspected drug dealing and junk vehicles on his property. Olive and two other men were arrested there in late April.

Olive was charged with four new counts of drug possession with intent to deliver. Investigators seized two of his vehicles and more than $2,400 in cash. While searching his home, they arrested two women and reported finding heroin, scales, more cash, documentation of drug dealing and about three-quarters of a pound of methamphetamine.

In the news release, the sheriff’s office complained that Grovdahl released Olive and two of the others on their own recognizance. “Your frustration is understandable,” the sheriff’s office told community members.

Grovdahl served as a court commissioner – a judge who is appointed, rather than elected, to help out with caseloads – for 21 years. He had been preparing to retire when the sheriff’s office criticized him, and his last day on the bench was May 16.

Attempts to reach Grovdahl for comment were unsuccessful. Presiding Judge Harold Clark, however, issued a response to the sheriff’s office on behalf of the Superior Court, saying judges and commissioners “recognize the difficult and heavy burden our law enforcement agencies carry to ensure the safety of our families, neighbors and communities.”

But, the statement said, judges and commissioners are bound to uphold the law.

“In the instance of pretrial release decisions, our state law and constitution require judicial officers to presume release following arrest, except in limited circumstances,” the statement said. “Our law is reinforced by the United State Constitution which dictates that pretrial detention is the exception – not the rule – because of the presumption of innocence. Moreover, the law requires that any bail that is set must be based on the individual’s ability to pay.”

Knezovich said judges “were less than enthused” by his public airing of grievances.

“I don’t fault any specific role in the system – judge, prosecutor, defense – because the system is truly broken,” he said. “It’s to the point that there’s no way you’re going to get accountability for people committing crimes in Spokane County.”

More cells or fewer inmates?

During a recent public forum at Spokane Valley City Hall, Liz Swavola, a jail expert with the New York-based Vera Institute of Justice, asked those in attendance: “By a show of hands, how many people think the criminal justice system here in Spokane is working perfectly?”

Not a single person raised their hand.

The goal of the meeting was to educate community members and gather feedback as local officials mull what to do about the overcrowded jail. Knezovich attended along with Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell.

Maggie Yates, Spokane County’s criminal justice administrator, said several new diversion programs, designed to place people in treatment instead of jail cells, are showing signs of success.

Last July, for example, the Spokane Police Department established four special teams that include mental health clinicians who work to de-escalate tense situations.

As of April, Yates said, only 8% of people who came into contact with those teams were taken to jail, and often it was because they had active warrants. Only 16% ended up in emergency rooms, she said, taking “a huge burden” off of those resources.

The sheriff’s office recently established a similar team. Yates said it has resulted in faster service for people in mental health crises and saved time and money by freeing up patrol officers.

Yates also expressed hope for a new 16-bed mental health stabilization facility that’s expected to open in June 2020 and therapeutic courts that allow people to avoid jail time if they complete treatment.

Knezovich said he wants judges to have better information when making bail decisions. He said he understands the need for more programs that can help rehabilitate people who commit crimes. But he believes those programs should be housed within a new community corrections center, like an improved version of the Geiger Corrections Center on the West Plains. The county needs more traditional jail beds, too, for those who won’t take part in treatment, he said.

“If you don‘t fix the structure, you can’t fix the system,” he said. “It’s building the programs that change people’s lives.”