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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County’s criminal justice system got mixed reviews in a new report. Here’s how it fared

The Spokane County Jail.  (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)

The Spokane region got mixed reviews on its progress on criminal justice reforms in a new report released earlier this month, receiving praise for the addition of mental health law enforcement teams, but criticism for uncertain funding to pretrial services, a high number of felony filings and slow progress on transparency.

The report, an update to a document titled “The Blueprint for Reform,” was written by a local retired judge, a former U.S. Attorney and a defense attorney.

The first Blueprint was published in 2013 and was a set of recommendations to make the criminal justice system more equitable and less expensive.

The report on the progress of the original Blueprint for Reform was lambasted almost as soon as it was released by Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, who called one section of it “virulent misinformation” because the writers did not tie increases in some crimes to COVID-19 releases of inmates from the jail.

Others, such as Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane NAACP and advocacy group Revive I Did the Time, criticized the report, saying it did not go far enough and Spokane County should have made much more progress than it has in reforming the criminal justice system.

One of the authors, retired Judge James Murphy, said he expected some negative reactions, but his conclusions are based on hundreds of interviews with players in the criminal justice system, experience and data.

“None of the three of us had an ax to grind,” he said. “We attempted to do a good job and these are our recommendations based on the evidence that was presented to us.”

Cause or effect? Some conclusions of report doubted

The authors praised technology upgrades to allow virtual access to the courts, and the implementation of teams that include a mental health clinician and a police officer who has helped many in crisis avoid jail. The report also highlights the reduction in the jail population this spring to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among inmates and jail staff, and a few judges’ adherence to a rule that requires defendants to only be jailed before trial if they meet certain criteria.

The report praises several judges for following the spirit of Criminal Rule 3.2 and release decisions made during the pandemic, which led to the jail population being reduced by 40% in April. The report noted there is no evidence the people released during the pandemic contributed to an increase in crime.

Knezovich disagreed with the authors, noting there had been an increase in some crimes, including 17 homicides in the city of Spokane this year compared to four last year, and there were increases in property crime in both the city and the county. Knezovich also noted there had been an increase in crime in the unincorporated area, which is unusual for Spokane County.

Knezovich said other factors that could be related to increases in crime, such as elevated poverty, domestic violence and limited access to resources, are “red herrings” that distract from the release issue.

“This is not about people not being able to get services,” he said. “(The services) really don’t exist. This is about our ability to hold people accountable and have people that should be in jail in jail.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said the county should continue to investigate whether jail releases had any effect on crime, and he would need more information before deciding whether he agreed with the report or the sheriff.

“I think it’s new information that we have to take into consideration, and find out if there is cause and effect, or whether we’re reaching false conclusions,” he said.

Spokane County Commissioners Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns said they would also like to see more research before making definitive decisions.

The sheriff also argued that the three writers of the report had been influenced by activists with criminal records.

The writers say the report is based on interviews with stakeholders in the criminal justice system, research and evidence.

When asked to name which activists with criminal backgrounds were influencing the writers of the report, Knezovich said he did not have the names of the people who may have been involved.

“I would have to take a look at all the people on the committee to know who exactly is doing what anymore; I don’t have that,” he said. “But I can tell you there are people and organizations out there that are influencing the Law and Justice Council. They have criminal backgrounds. Yes, I want to hear what you have to say, but you should not be steering the discussion.”

Murphy and fellow author former U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District James McDevitt said the report was based on the data that was available to the writers in the spring and noted that the release and crime data would need to be studied to see whether there has been a clear link between jail releases and crime rates during the pandemic.

“With recidivism and crime rates, you need to look at trends to determine whether you’re going the right way or the wrong way,” McDevitt said.

The third author of the report, defense attorney Phillip Wetzel, also argued that there needs to be evidence showing the releases directly correlated with crimes or increasing crime rates, and the entire justice system should study it before decisions are made about large jail releases.

“Those facts need to be analyzed more thoroughly to see if the decisions and processes that led to the reduction in jail population need to be permanent,” he said. “It is a fairly new phenomenon, and it needs to be understood.”

Region’s prosecutions questioned

Two of the authors, Murphy and Wetzel, were also critical of the large number of felony filings filed by prosecuting attorney Larry Haskell.

According to a 2019 Spokesman-Review analysis of Spokane County’s felony filings, Spokane County has led the state’s most populous counties in felony filing rates per capita since 2011 and has filed nearly double the state average of drug felony charges.

In the report, Wetzel and Murphy note that the criminal justice system is overloaded and public defenders and therapeutic courts have been overwhelmed by the number of felony filings. Murphy argued that Haskell should use prosecutorial discretion when choosing whom to charge and for what types of crimes, which could help the entire criminal justice system.

Haskell said if the criminal justice system is overloaded by the number of people he has charged with felonies, more money and resources should be given to the system, instead of charging fewer people. He said he has lobbied the Legislature to ask for more funds.

“The fact that we’re strained is not a reason to not file a charge,” he said. “What we need to do is seek more funding for the system that we have.”

Spokane County is facing a budget deficit of around $6 million and plans to leave several positions vacant next year, including sheriff’s deputies, and the state also is facing a multiyear budget deficit, with many state workers partly furloughed this year to reduce spending.

Haskell said he files charges out of respect for victims of crime, and charges that don’t necessarily have a victim, such as possessing a small amount of a controlled substances, he tries to refer to drug court when he can. He argued that if he does charge too many people, or charge a person incorrectly, the criminal justice system has checks and balances along the way, including judges and juries that protect people from being wrongfully sentenced.

“As long as I have the staffing to be able to file those charges that I believe meet the statutory standard, then we’re going to file those charges,” he said.

Though Murphy and Wetzel argued that Haskell could use more discretion when filing felony charges, the third author, McDevitt, a former federal prosecutor, argued that Spokane County shouldn’t be trying to emulate King County. King files fewer felonies, though it has a larger population, and McDevitt echoed Haskell’s suggestion that the system should receive more resources if it is strained.

Role of the justice council also comes into play

All three authors also argued the Spokane Regional Justice Council, which includes stakeholders in the criminal justice system and four citizen appointees and several subcommittees, should be smaller.

Murphy argued the current council is unable to get much done because of its size.

“We just have to take a look and do an inventory and look at who we have as members and who they represent and try and cut that back,” he said. “(We need to) look at other ways to include the wisdom of people while at the same time limiting the size and bulk.”

Robinson, of the Spokane NAACP, said the Law and Justice Council should be larger, have more voices and more power, arguing that the most frustrating part of the council is how little action has been taken on its recommendations.

A recent recommendation from the Law and Justice Council was a commitment to racial equity, a proposal Haskell argued was legally dubious.

After weeks of debate, the Spokane County Commissioners adopted a revised proposal that included the word “equity,” but changed other language in the proposal. That move frustrated many leaders of color in Spokane County, who said the pushback showed that Spokane County’s leaders weren’t really committed to change.

The Law and Justice Council has historically included few people of color in its ranks, and does not have a Native voice, though Native Americans are a group that has been disproportionately impacted in the criminal justice system.

Robinson said the committee should have more power to enact policy and the status report did not go far enough when calling out the serious issues that still plague Spokane County’s criminal justice system.

“The system is very comfortable here locally with the way it’s been operating,” he said. “What this continually points to is the struggle to get it to move to the shift it’s being called to move to, which is a restorative dynamic that’s outward facing and publicly transparent.”

Robinson noted that the criminal justice dashboard, which just went online this year, should have been finished much sooner, and there should be more easily accessible criminal justice data so people can judge the system and its performance.

Wetzel echoed Robinson’s concern about transparency, calling for reports and technology so the public has the tools to hold its leaders accountable.

“The people who can hold the elected officials accountable are the voters,” he said. “But these important decisions aren’t easily apparent to the voters, so it’s very, very important that those decisions be made apparent.”

He said he hopes there will be regular reporting on the progress for each elected official, and each agency, to show how they’re working on reforms.

Other areas the authors criticized: the lack of a community corrections center, which offers reentry services to people released from jail, and the lack of funding for pretrial services, which is set to lose about half of its employees after a grant that funded many services expired and no other funding was found to cover salaries.

Commissioners said they were committed to looking for funding for pretrial services, and the final budget is scheduled to be approved in December. French said the county was still discussing the issue.

“I think there’s an overall commitment to try and sustain it,” French said.

Spokane County commissioners said they would like to see changes to the Law and Justice Council, though they said it was too early to name any specific changes, and all said they would like more reports and information about the progress of the criminal justice system released.

French said a Community Corrections Center could be part of a jail bond and the facility could be part of a campus or a new jail – though either facility could be years away due to financial hardship caused by the pandemic.

The full report can be found on the Law and Justice Council’s website.