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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Justice reform moves forward, despite resistance from some in Spokane justice system

Jeremiah Miller, 39, of Spokane, leads a gathering of marchers protesting the the possiblity of building a new Spokane County Jail on June 20, 2019. While many have called for alternative approaches to improve conditions in the jail, some members of the justice system have signaled they support construction of a new facility. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Jeremiah Miller, 39, of Spokane, leads a gathering of marchers protesting the the possiblity of building a new Spokane County Jail on June 20, 2019. While many have called for alternative approaches to improve conditions in the jail, some members of the justice system have signaled they support construction of a new facility. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

A couple of weeks back, a task force studying criminal justice reform in Spokane voted to adopt a goal you might think would be unanimously shared: “We are committed to pursuing a criminal justice system that ensures racial equity and equity across all identities.”

But the prosecutor and the police department, stunningly, chose not to sign on. Prosecutor Larry Haskell voted against this nonbinding goal by saying it didn’t take into account “underlying causes,” and Assistant Police Chief Justin Lundgren voted no because the goal didn’t take “root causes” into account.

If it sounds to you like they’re reluctant to be tasked with taking systemic bias seriously, you’re not alone.

In any case, though, the goal will be all but meaningless if the cops and prosecutors don’t share it.

That is one example of a larger dynamic that some fear is threatening the community’s multifaceted efforts to rethink our justice system and reduce our overreliance on incarceration.

Key justice officials simply aren’t on board. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich never really has been – arguing, as he has for years, that we simply must have a jail that’s more than twice as big than the one we have. Haskell, meanwhile, is the most aggressive charger of felonies among his peers statewide, and has been a skeptic of diversion programs and therapeutic courts.

They aren’t the final decision-makers. But all the good ideas and hopeful recommendations will crash without any buy-in from the key players.

Experts have studied the issue. Data has been gathered and projections have been made. Researchers estimate we could bring down the jail population by hundreds, using diversion and treatment and other alternatives, and they argue that past projects overestimated the future need.

And a slate of reform recommendations – emerging from a process that has included three national criminal justice organizations and a task force of local officials and citizens – has been presented to the County Commission for action.

What’s at stake is whether the community can do something truly remarkable – something smarter, more effective and humane, and less expensive – or whether we’ll just pay those ideals lip service and stick with Plan A.

Big jail. Expensive cells. The application of the same blunt, costly tool for the wide variety of problems that flow into the jail every day.

A lot of reformers are fearful that train is already leaving the station. County Commissioner Al French insists it isn’t. French and the commission will draft a proposal for a new jail that we’ll all likely vote on in the fall or winter. He said he envisions not a big jail, but a community corrections center that would focus a new vision of the justice system in Spokane, including treatment options, community services, diversion programs and both minimum and maximum security detention.

It would be, he said, “a full-meal deal.”

“The solution is fixing the system, not just one part of the system,” French said.

Reformers are suspicious of new jails, believing the momentum of habit will produce simply more of the same. But not many disagree that the old jail is a dump, and perhaps dangerous. French is canvassing parties that would be involved in these reforms – which include law enforcement, prosecutors, public defenders, judges, jailers and community members – with an eye toward producing a proposal that is concrete and realistic, he said.

There are two significant, related efforts to research and suggest reforms in Spokane’s justice system. The county has been a recipient of grant funding through the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, a three-year process to study the system and collaborate on ways to reduce the jail population. The county also hired the JFA Institute to study the jail population and produce projections and recommendations.

A task force of officials from different jurisdictions is proposing a set of guiding principles and recommendations.

After months of work, the JFA presented findings to county commissioners recently, estimating that the county could reduce its jail population dramatically over the next decade by adopting a series of reform recommendations and reducing “holds,” in which the county rents out cells to the feds. Depending on which programs were adopted, the JFA projected the county could reduce its jail population from roughly 1,000 a day to the low 700s.

The institute also critiqued past jail population modeling – including the more than decade-old report that undergirds calls for a bigger jail – and noted that the jail population forecast for 2019 was actually 26% higher than it turned out to be.

Spokane has gone to great lengths to get good information and develop good ideas about how to dispense justice more smartly. The question is whether we will heed them, or return stubbornly to the ongoing dance with the one who brung us.

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