Spokane County Commissioners adopted a set of expansive guiding principles that promise to consider people’s race, gender and circumstances when making decisions in the criminal justice system, a statement that leaders in the Black and Indigenous community say is too broad to bring meaningful change.
The guiding principles were originally developed in January by a task force of community members and stakeholders in the criminal justice system and included commitments to humane treatment and data-driven reform. The most hotly debated principle was racial equity, and whether the goal should be singled out or expanded into a statement committing to equality.
The statement Spokane County Commissioners approved Tuesday was partially inspired by the Spokane Regional Health District Board of Health’s commitment to racial equity, which was a two-page document acknowledging the health disparities experienced by people of color and promising to include and support those communities in decisions, hiring and by advocating for eliminating disparities.
Commissioners argued their statement was stronger than what was originally put forward by the task force because it includes many types of disparities and actionable ways they can address them.
“It captures everything in the original and then some,” County Commissioner Al French said.
The commissioners 65-word guiding principle reads as follows: “Applying lenses for, but not limited to, race/gender/socio-economics/education/age equity analysis to current and new programs, policies, and services approved and/or funded by the Board of County Commissioners; Including impacted community members in the development and evaluation of law and justice programming; and Investing in hiring/recruiting practices and professional development opportunities that address inequities in the law and justice system.”
The version commissioners adopted came after months of workshopping. Earlier proposals included the taskforce’s original wording, which was preferred by communities of color, and a version from Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell who said including the word equity would be “putting a finger on the scales of justice.” Haskell did not attend recent meetings where commissioners developed their latest proposal.
Kurtis Robinson, president of the NAACP and executive director of I Did the Time, said the principle and its adoption showed some progress and that he appreciated that commissioners used the word “equity,” which had been a sticking point in the past. But he also said commissioners should have added to what the taskforce built, instead of rewriting it.
“It’s great you put in equity and great you put in race in that long list, but you’re not leading with the thing that science has said is the most determinant factor,” he said. “It’s encouraging, but discouraging.”
Other leaders, such as Maureen Rosette, chief operating officer of the Native Project, said the added words made the statement feel watered down and less impactful than the original. She said the number of drafts and length of time it took commissioners to develop a statement also makes her concerned that the promises included in the guiding principles may never come true.
“If it took that long to get it on paper, how long will it take to come to fruition?” she said.
Rosette said she also didn’t see a clear way to measure whether those goals had been accomplished or any progress had been made, which she said was concerning.
That sentiment was also shared by Kiantha Duncan, vice president of the local NAACP, who also feared that the commitment could turn into an unfulfilled promise.
County Commissioner Josh Kerns said he didn’t consider the commitment to racial equity watered down, and said the changes made it stronger.
“Yes, there’s more words, but there’s a whole lot more content and a whole lot more meaning in what we did,” he said.
He argued the additional categories and promise to include people in the process and hire people from affected communities added more than was in the original statement.
“We spent a lot of time mulling over this language, (what) will have the biggest impact, and, quite frankly, I think we came up with a pretty good product,” he said.
Commissioner Mary Kuney said the principle did include a commitment to racial equity and a promise to look at problems through that lens, noting that past examples put before commissioners, such as the wording proposed by Larry Haskell and a previous version from French, didn’t include racial equity.
“I felt it says more, and I was happy to have it talk about the different lenses that we need to be looking at our criminal justice system through,” she said.
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