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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Among Washington’s largest counties, Spokane County has the largest rate of drug felonies – and it’s not even close

Justine Murray pauses on a rock cliff with cut flowers, May 9, on the site where her son Ethan Murray was shot and killed by a Spokane County deputy on May 4 in Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Long before his fatal encounter with a Spokane County sheriff’s deputy near his camp just outside a Spokane Valley apartment complex, 25-year-old Ethan Murray had his first introduction with the criminal justice system.

When Murray was 18 years old he took a friend’s car without permission. Police in downtown Spokane found him driving the car and arrested him.

When they patted him down, they found drugs in his pocket.

“Located a small clear plastic baggie that contained a few white rocks,” the officer wrote in charging documents. The officer knew the rocks to be crack cocaine, and Murray was on his way to a felony drug possession charge.

From there, Murray bounced from hospital beds, to jail cells and court benches, to shelters and service providers across the country, before being released from custody earlier this year in Bonner County after he had been found with meth.

Soon after he set out for Spokane and made camp in a wooded area near 2820 N. Cherry St.

His mother doesn’t yet know if he was high on meth – which exacerbated his schizophrenia when Deputy Joseph Wallace shot him six times in his left side, according to a medical examiner’s report. Wallace told investigators Murray threatened him before turning toward him and reaching for his waistband.

Justine Murray said drugs and mental illness have always played a role in her son’s adult life and were likely a factor in his last, deadly interaction with the law. She believes that a system that puts more emphasis on drug treatment could have made a difference.

“If they would have offered something, he might still be alive,” she said.

Unlike most of Washington’s larger counties that have moved toward decriminalizing felony drug possession in conjunction with diversion programs aimed at swapping jail cells for robust drug and mental health treatment, Spokane County has moved in a different direction.

Since 2011, Spokane County has led the state’s five most populous counties – Clark, Snohomish, Pierce, King and Spokane – in its rate of filing felony drug possession charges, according to a Spokesman-Review analysis of 18 years of statewide superior court filing data provided by the Washington State Courts Administrative Office of the Courts.

Per capita, Spokane County filed nearly eight times as many drug possession charges as King County last year, and at nearly double the rate of Pierce, Clark and Snohomish counties. It was also nearly double the state average.

Population-adjusted numbers aside, Spokane County also led the state in raw felony drug charges filed by its prosecutor’s office, at 1,281 last year. With a population of 500,000 compared to King County’s 2.2 million, the rate dwarfed the Seattle area’s 722 filings.

Pierce County, with roughly 350,000 more people than Spokane County, filed 1,048 charges last year – 233 fewer than its Eastern Washington counterpart.

What’s more, Spokane County accounts for double the rate of overall felony criminal filings compared to other large counties – a new high for a county that’s led the pack since at least 2003. Last year, it quadrupled King County’s felony filing rate and doubled that of Snohomish and Pierce counties.

At a time when many in the community have pushed for reform-minded criminal justice, arguing the county is over-reliant on incarceration for those awaiting trial, Spokane County jailed felony drug users at a rate unseen since 2009.

During the same period, property crime – an offense that many in law enforcement say is deeply tied to drug use – continues to plague Spokane. The property crime rate in 2017 is on par with the early to mid-1990s, with about 7,200 reported incidents per 100,000 residents.

Drug use appears to be rising as well, according to data from the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s Office and Spokane Regional Health District.

With a jail population consistently over capacity, critics – including some on the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, the governing body tasked with exploring reform options in accordance with state law – are pointing to programs used elsewhere in the state, particularly west of the Cascades, that could lead to lower drug use, a smaller jail population and reduced property crime.

However, many in the criminal justice system see drug court and incarceration – in addition to a new jail with treatment centers – as the best means forward.

That includes Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell.

Larry Haskell
Larry Haskell

“What I tell people is, ‘If you don’t want us to file controlled substance charges, then speak to the Legislature,’ ” Haskell said. “But in the meantime, law enforcement is going to do what? Enforce the law.”

Critics say Haskell is in the best position to lower the jail population by referring felony drug charges to other therapeutic courts, such as the city’s community court.

“Prosecutors have the ability to do the right thing for the entire community,” said Spokane City Councilman Breean Beggs, who lost to Haskell in the 2014 election for prosecutor. He now sits on the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council.

“When you don’t use discretion,” Beggs said, “you only have so much capacity at the jail and at the courts.”

Bombarded with cases

Spokane County Public Defender Thomas Krzyminski did something last month he’d rather not: he withheld assigning his attorneys new cases in order to not exceed caseload limits set by the state. Instead, the files sat on a desk while defendants awaited contact from their attorney.

It’s the third time in at least a year he’s had to make similar stances. The most recent was chalked up to the prosecutor’s office going through a backlog of possession and property crime cases that had piled up, mostly due to understaffing, according to Haskell.

“I never received any notice of that happening,” Krzyminski said. “It wasn’t until our case assigner was like, ‘We are getting bombarded by possession cases’ that we noticed.”

According to a recent report issued by the Washington State Office of Public Defense, despite having one of the highest file rates in the state, Spokane County spent $18.73 per capita on public defense in 2016. Compared to King County’s $33.97 per capita, and Pierce County’s $18.46.

Krzyminski said his office has no choice but to accept a case when it comes in, no matter staff or funding shortfalls, unlike the prosecutor’s office, which can decline referrals from law enforcement.

King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg and newly elected Snohomish County Prosecutor Adam Cornell both have policies that reduce the number of simple possession charges they file.

Cornell said his predecessor, Mark Roe, had implemented the policy in February 2018 just before he left office. The policy is currently under review.

“The priority of my office is the prosecution of violent crimes and sexual assault crimes,” Cornell said. “The prosecution of simple felony drug cases is my lowest priority.”

Haskell says he’s just filing the referrals he gets from law enforcement – similar to his predecessor, Steve Tucker.

Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker in May 2006 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane County Prosecutor Steve Tucker in May 2006 (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Tucker ran the office from 1999 to 2014 and said he, too, followed what the Legislature said was law. And if drug laws would have changed during his tenure, those changes would have been reflected in his charging decisions.

“We kind of took them as they came in,” he said. “I look back at it, I put a lot of people in jail for marijuana.”

Prosecutor records from 2013 to 2018 show that 87% to 90% of law enforcement referrals become criminal cases in Spokane County, compared to King County’s 56% to 57%.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and Spokane police Chief Craig Meidl said that while simple possession charges aren’t the focus of their departments’ drug fighting efforts – dealers being the primary target – officers aren’t going to forgo an arrest if they find illegal drugs.

“The one thing that people need to understand is, there’s a cost to drug addiction in America,” said Knezovich, who’s been critical of the state’s legalization of marijuana, calling it a gateway drug. “That cost is violence. You can’t escape that fact.”

Meanwhile, the Spokane Police Department has diversion programs already in place intended to connect low-level offenders with services rather than jail time. Namely, a partnership with Frontier Behavioral Health that links officers and service providers as part of a state-funded program through the Department of Social and Health Services.

Spokane police Capt. Dave Singly, at the downtown police precinct, said that although the program has helped with providing access to health treatment, including bringing some out of homelessness, it wasn’t intended to deal with felony-level drug use.

In the case where an officer finds someone with an illicit drug, more often than not an arrest will be made. And police are finding drugs more often.

Data from the University of Washington, which analyzed crime lab cases wherein drugs were seized, suggested opioid and meth use is up year over year, with meth being the most common drug since at least 2002.

In Spokane County, meth leads as the most common illicit drug causing or contributing to deaths in 2017 at 44, according to data from the Spokane County medical examiner.

And among those surveyed by the Spokane Regional Health District at the county’s needle exchange program, 1,027 respondents in 2016 reported meth as their drug of choice – the first year since at least 2012 that meth was more common than heroin.

Meidl said meth often plays a role in criminal activity, especially property crime. He disagreed that the county should follow King County’s lead in declining to prosecute many types of drug offenses.

“We’re going to keep doing what we’re doing,” he said. “And we have to. Drugs destroy lives and they lead to property crime. We’re going to keep going as strong as we can to get these individuals off the street.”

A ‘revolving door’

Like many homeless people, Ethan Murray struggled with an addiction that isolated him from everyone he knew, including his mother.

The last time Justine Murray saw her son, she said, he walked away from her Sandpoint home in subzero temperatures as snow fell.

Weeks later he was dead – likely with drugs in his system, as people had reported he was acting erratic near children at an apartment complex.

In the 36 hours leading up to his death, Murray was seen six times by deputies responding to calls, a figure Knezovich confirmed Friday.

“He had a mental health condition,” Justine Murray said. “He needed help.”

On any given day on Spokane County Superior Court’s first appearance docket – when defendants first see a judge following an arrest – stories similar to Murray’s first arrest abound.

A 54-year-old man sleeping on the north side of Fourth Avenue downtown near Madison Street was stopped by an officer on April 11 and cited for an alleged violation of the pedestrian interference law, records state. Once the officer ran his name, he discovered the man had active misdemeanor warrants.

Once searched, the officer found meth in his pocket.

Similarly, on April 17, officers responded to a call by a man who complained he had been assaulted. After checking his name, the officer discovered he had two arrest warrants. The man was transported to the Spokane County Jail, where he was subsequently stripped and searched.

The corrections officer found a bag that tested positive for meth. In addition to his new charges, he was charged with felony possession.

Anna Nortdvedt, the public defender who oversees the first appearance docket, said the prosecutor’s office often files these types of cases without much of a plan on what to do with people once they’re in the system.

“It’s sad,” she said. “They go to jail, they get out with an offer and they go right back to the same thing.”

Similar to Murray, the defendants in both cases were moved to the county’s early case resolution docket, where they likely would have been offered a spot on the county’s drug court – a yearlong program that drops the felony charge if the defendant completes the requirements.

Instead, they failed to show at multiple court hearings, then eventually pleaded guilty. Murray’s charges were eventually dismissed, but not before he spent five months going in and out of court.

“It’s just a revolving door,” Nortdvedt said. “Same things, same people.”

Drug court alternatives

Drug court remains Haskell’s No. 1 treatment option for felony drug users. When he charges someone with a drug crime, he hopes they’ll use it. And stick with it.

Similar to other diversion efforts that seek to reduce jail time, drug court is a voluntary therapeutic option that offers the promise of a dropped felony charge if a defendant completes a yearlong recovery program.

And studies have shown it works. Haskell hopes to expand the court later this year to post-conviction, allowing those with a high offender score to participate.

But critics say the court, first established in 1996, is showing its age. While studies have shown its cost-effectiveness in providing treatment, some say the criminal justice system isn’t, and perhaps never was, the ideal candidate for helping people to get clean.

“Courts are primarily motivated by the need to ensure public safety and, while providing access to effective drug treatment has been shown to reduce reoffending, for many judges and prosecutors the use of mandated treatment is a relatively recent addition to their professional toolkit,” wrote Jim Parsons, the vice president and research director at the Vera Institute of Justice.

Perhaps that’s why some in the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council have begun researching alternatives similar to the city’s community court, which better emphasizes access to services, and even takes the extra step of holding court in the city library – far away from the stigma of iron bars.

One alternative floated by members of the board is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program used in King County, which began in 2011 as a means to address low-level drug and prostitution crimes in Seattle’s Bell Town neighborhood and the Skyway area of King County.

A recidivism study by the University of Washington in 2015 showed that compared to a control group of “system-as-usual” participants, the LEAD group had 60% lower odds of arrest during the six months subsequent to evaluational entry. The LEAD group also had 58% lower odds of at least one arrest after entry, and had 39% lower odds of being charged with a felony after entry.

Lisa Daugaard, the director of the Public Defender Association, which oversees LEAD, said the program offers many things drug court doesn’t – chief among them, a case manager not directly affiliated with the criminal justice system.

“The really remarkable phenomenon is people who officers thought they would see die on the streets do get better,” she said. “That sometimes takes place over an arc of three or four years. But since we know that, we can get started on that.”

LEAD only has about 600 people in the program in King County and limited funding. Daugaard said she’s working with multiple agencies across the state on implementing a similar program in their respective counties.

This year, the Legislature passed two bills with similar intent behind LEAD, said Daugaard. Together they secured about $5.6 million in funding for the next two years.

One bill calls for state agencies to provide more access to evidence-based opioid use disorder treatment services.

The other requires the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs to develop a grant program that supports initiatives to connect people with behavioral health needs and “therapeutic interventions.”

Spokane Valley law enforcement officers pursued a man, Ethan Murray, who was acting suspicious around the apartment complex at 2828 N. Cherry, to this homeless encampment Saturday, May 4, 2019, and later shot him during a confrontation. Jonathan Glover/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jonathan Glover / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane Valley law enforcement officers pursued a man, Ethan Murray, who was acting suspicious around the apartment complex at 2828 N. Cherry, to this homeless encampment Saturday, May 4, 2019, and later shot him during a confrontation. Jonathan Glover/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW (Jonathan Glover / The Spokesman-Review)

“Everybody gets that we have to bring all the pieces together,” Daugaard said. “By definition, you cannot bring the public health piece into the picture if you are simultaneously terrifying, humiliating and stigmatizing people.”

Paying respects

Five days after Ethan Murray died, Justine Murray decided she was ready to visit his last camp.

Flowers in hand, she walked slowly there. With each crunch of pine needles and cones, the scene became more clear: a pair of tents, some garbage in a fire pit. Blankets strewn over a pet carrier. Some evidence tape wrapped around a pair of pine trees.

After looking around, she walked up a nearby hill, carefully retracing what she was told happened before her son was shot. She knelt for a moment and cried. And now she’s motivated.

She has taken to Facebook, urging her hundreds of followers to mobilize in service of mental illness and smart justice. If things were different in Spokane County, she’s convinced, Ethan’s story wouldn’t have ended so abruptly.

“We found peace in the fact that he died in nature where he spent most of his time,” she said in a post on May 10. “We also have so many unanswered questions (and) will wait to hear from the investigators regarding what happened.”

Anna Nortdvedt, the public defender, was briefly Murray’s attorney before he was sent to Bonner County. While she said more therapeutic options exist today than ever before, the system isn’t quite set up to help people like him.

But it could be.

Until then, though, “in and out,” said Justine Murray.

“Next case, next case.”

Editors note: The story was updated Sunday, May 19, 2019 to correct the name of a former Snohomish County Prosecutor.