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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Michele Fukawa: Criminal justice reform in the time of COVID

By Michele Fukawa, J.D.

On Monday, the Spokane County commissioners will continue to hear stakeholder input on how the county should spend $90 million in CARES Act funding.

The Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES, Act was passed by Congress on March 28 to provide emergency aid to individuals, families and businesses affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. The county has already approved $12 million in spending. As it considers how to spend the remainder, the county should prioritize investing in community-based programs designed to keep individuals out of jail.

Spokane County is contending with a spike in COVID-19 cases, with record numbers of positive cases in recent weeks. Simultaneously, the population in the Spokane County Jail is rising. In 2019, the county housed, on average, 960 individuals in its jail beds. The county took proactive measures to reduce the population due to COVID-19, and by March 31 this population was reduced to 606, and by April 30, it further reduced to 528 individuals. However, as of Wednesday, the number of individuals has risen to 610.

Jails and prisons, like nursing facilities and food processing plants, have the potential to be epicenters for COVID-19 outbreaks due to the close contact of individuals in an often poorly ventilated and unhygienic environment. The New York Times reports that nine of the 10 largest clusters of cases in the country are linked to outbreaks in jails and prisons. Large correctional facility outbreaks have occurred in Ohio, Texas, Tennessee, California and Illinois. Locally, the outbreak at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, Washington, has resulted in two fatalities and positive test results for 180 incarcerated individuals and 50 staff.

On June 24, individuals being held in Department of Correction facilities asked the Washington state Supreme Court to again review whether the DOC is meeting their obligation to protect their welfare.

Investing in community-based programs will have significant health benefits, both for arrested individuals and the community at large. Implementing community-based programs in Spokane will divert arrested individuals from pretrial incarceration, and provide support and monitoring for them in the community. Such intervention will provide a reduction in the jail population, which will allow for more social distancing and better hygienic conditions in the jail. Even brief interactions with the jail system put individuals and the community at risk. A recent study in Chicago found that the practice of “jail cycling” (i.e., briefly putting individuals through arrest and pretrial detention) was a “significant predictor” of COVID-19 infection, and was associated with 15.7% of all COVID-19 cases in Illinois.

In a recent presentation to the county board, the county’s Law and Justice Administrator, Maggie Yates, proposed a list of requests for the CARES Act fund, including proposals to fund community-based programs for individuals diverted or released from jail.

This included supervised release ($400,000); court appearance support ($200,000); and community-based remote court access (cost TBD). Also proposed were programs which provided housing, treatment, planning and support for diversion and re-entry populations.

Most of these proposals are not new to community members who have asked for criminal justice reform in Spokane. They have been discussed and voted upon during the county’s Justice Task Force meetings but have yet to be realized.

The COVID-19 crisis has created a situation in which these programs could not only implement long-desired reforms but also prevent large-scale outbreaks in the jails and community.

Michele Fukawa, J.D., is the assistant director of the Center for Civil and Human Rights at Gonzaga Law. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily the views of Gonzaga University.

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