Speaking from work experience, Riley Hewko said that many people charged with violent crimes often grew up with abuse and addiction, and jails do more harm to people who already have experienced such traumas.
A group of Spokane community leaders listened to the traumatic experiences transgender people face in jail during a speech delivered by Hewko, as part of the Center for Justice’s annual fundraiser. Dainen Penta, director of the Center for Justice, a community nonprofit law firm, said about 270 people attended the fundraiser and about $32,000 in donations was raised.
Hewko, an attorney who co-founded the Incarcerated Parents Project at the Washington Defender Association, now works as the assistant ombudsperson and the Gender Equity and Vulnerable Populations specialist at the Washington state Office of the Corrections Ombuds. The speech was a reflection of Hewko’s personal beliefs.
Hewko identifies as a queer, transgender person of color, who experienced sexual abuse as a child and saw how a family and community was torn apart from abuse and addiction.
“It is through my lens as a queer and trans person of color that I’ve encountered a different version of our criminal justice system than the one that provides justice and safety for our communities,” Hewko said.
Hewko said many people who are charged with violent crimes grew up in similar circumstances, and jails do more harm to people who have already experienced such traumas.
There is something wrong with the system when a harmed child, now grown, is placed in the same criminal justice system as their abusers, Hewko said.
“The criminal justice system is now tasked with correcting the behavior of that child, now an adult,” Hewko said. “This violence is connected to their trauma, anger and harm they once experienced when they were young.”
Hewko advocated criminal justice reform and putting people charged with violent crimes through treatment programs, rather than simply serving a prison sentence.
“One of the numbers we don’t talk about when we talk about violence is that 95% of people (in jail or prison) will return to our communities,” Hewko said. “More than 50% of people in prison are charged with violent crimes. If our reform strategies only focus on people with nonviolent crimes, that means that a large number of people will be reintroduced to our communities after receiving the corrections portion, but not the rehabilitation portion? In that, how are we fulfilling our promise to promote safety in our communities?”
Penta said having Hewko speak to community members gave them the chance to hear about transgender issues that aren’t often heard about in Spokane.
“One of our goals is to raise awareness of voices often unheard,” Penta said. “It’s an interest area of ours, and something people needed to know about.”
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