Spokane is in the middle of a debate about whether to build a new jail. However, the debate is premature because Spokane has yet to fully implement essential criminal justice reforms that can dramatically reduce the number of human beings we incarcerate as well as reduce the unfair racial disparity in our jail population.
As determined by a nationally recognized criminal justice nonprofit, the Vera Institute, Spokane has a higher incarceration rate than Washington state. Spokane County also has higher rates of incarceration than other comparable Washington counties. Other recently released data regarding the people locked up in Spokane’s jails shows our jail population can be reduced significantly and quickly without sacrificing public safety.
Current jail information, as gathered by the consultant hired by Spokane County, shows that many people held in jail in Spokane are there on low-level offenses. They remain stuck in jail solely because they cannot afford low bail amounts. According to consultant Vera Institute, only 26% of the jail population is held on serious violent, sex offenses or other violent felony charges. The rest of the inmates are there on drug charges, nonviolent felonies, misdemeanors or federal holds. In fact, more than 37% of people awaiting trial are stuck in jail because they cannot pay bonds of less than $5,000. Many of the people being held in the jail could be released today without sacrificing public safety at a tremendous cost savings.
Other communities have demonstrated that people can be freed from jail without endangering public safety. Last year, Washington D.C. released 94% of all people arrested without imposing any bail. Of those people released, 86% of them made every court hearing and 86% were never arrested for any criminal offense while free awaiting trial. Only 2% of the people released were arrested for a crime of violence.
Unnecessary current policies have resulted in too many people being locked up in our jails. As The Spokesman-Review has reported, Spokane County prosecutors charge people with felony drug crimes much more often than almost any prosecutors in the state and far more often than prosecutors in other large Washington counties. This is the case even though research demonstrates that prosecuting people suffering from chemical dependency is less effective and much more costly than providing community-based treatment options that keep people living at home or in other appropriate therapeutic settings.
Thankfully, many people in Spokane are embracing a vision of fewer people behind bars and, as a result, many innovative programs and services are being introduced to address the true needs of people and reduce recidivism. The Bail Project, a national nonprofit organization, has begun helping bail people out of jail in Spokane. City police and county sheriff’s departments are starting to use mental health professionals to ride along in order to assist people in crisis and divert them into appropriate services and away from the jail. Law enforcement is reporting that these programs are successful. Planning is ongoing for a new community-based crisis intervention facility where people experiencing acute mental health crises can be sent.
However, additional steps are required. In 2014, community members and professionals within the criminal justice system came together over many months and produced the “Blueprint for Reform,” which laid out many recommendations to reduce the jail population and promote public safety. Unfortunately, five years on, most of those recommendations have not yet been implemented. Recommitting to those and other reforms would ensure that Spokane’s jail population is dramatically and quickly reduced while protecting the general public.
Building a new jail without first reducing the jail population will inevitably result in greater financial pressure upon Spokane County. Currently, the county spends millions of dollars per year to incarcerate people in its two jails. Any new construction will undoubtedly cost hundreds of millions of dollars more. A larger facility will require many additional staff to properly supervise and care for the increased number of people held there. Taxpayers will bear those additional costs. Dramatically reducing the jail population is a cheaper and more humane alternative.
Spokane spends too much and incarcerates too many, for too long and for the wrong reasons. Rather than build a new jail that will merely perpetuate these historical mistakes, it is time that Spokane truly embrace criminal justice reforms that minimize deaths, eliminate racial disparities and reduce the number of human beings we lock behind walls.
Curtis Hampton is co-chair of Smart Justice Spokane, a broad coalition of over 30 organizations working together to end mass incarceration and eliminate racial disparities in our local criminal justice system.