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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Criminal justice reform effort with broad support in Spokane County faces major budget cuts

Pre-trial services, which does assessments of people to give judges information needed to decide whether to release people from jail, as well as other services, could soon have its programs cut in half if funding is not found to sustain the service.  (Rebecca White / The Spokesman-Review)

Some services provided by a signature program in Spokane County’s attempt to reform the criminal justice system are in jeopardy as county commissioners contemplate how to fill a budget deficit.

An expansion of pre-trial services could soon end if Spokane County Commissioners do not find a way to pay for the program before grant funding expires.

Pretrial services compiles evaluations for judges who make release decisions in superior, district and municipal courts. They screen those accused of crimes to determine who might be best suited to participate in diversion programs, which keep offenders out of jail. They also help link those facing charges with public defenders.

Several of those programs, likely municipal court services and any diversion programs, could soon be left unfunded.

Pretrial Services currently consists of 11.6 positions, six of which are funded by the MacArthur Foundation grant that expires in December.

Spokane County CEO Gerry Gemmill said those employees were told when they were hired that their salaries were funded by a grant and knew their employment could end when it expired. He said services at Municipal Court could come to an end if funding is not found to cover them, and Superior Court and District Court would have to meet to evaluate what programs provided by pre-trial services were essential going forward.

The county was facing more than an $11 million deficit in October when it first began the budgeting process and has almost cut that number in half over the last month. The county is facing several cuts, including not filling two sheriff’s deputy positions and leaving several positions across the county vacant in hopes of balancing the budget.

The county is set to approve the budget in early December.

Funding for those pre-trial services was not included in the most recent budget proposals and emails from county officials were sent to some departments in the county, and in the city of Spokane, informing employees that some programs at pretrial services will not continue.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich expressed support for pre-trial services, saying he disagreed with many of the department’s assessments on whether people should be released, but overall, it was an important service to the criminal justice system and should be preserved.

He said other cities across the Spokane region should be pitching in to cover the program’s cost.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell said he also would like to see the department fully funded, and it has helped the prosecutor’s office launch at least one diversion program to keep first-time offenders out of the criminal justice system. In that program, offenders who complete a class can have a charge removed from their record.

Travis Phelps, the attorney who oversees the diversion program through the Prosecutor’s Office, said it helped many first-time offenders avoid a felony on their record, reduced recidivism, and got far more restitution money back into the hands of victims of crime.

He said the diversion program diverted around 400 cases from the criminal justice system. Only 3% of those who completed the program committed another crime, Phelps said.

“Everybody wants to talk about evidence-based – this is evidence-based; these are the numbers we want to see,” Phelps said.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said he was committed to funding pre-trial services and retaining all positions, and he planned to have a conversation with the budget officer to look for the funds.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said she also wants to preserve programs provided by pretrial services, but it would be challenging due to the revenue and budget issues the county is facing.

She said she also wants data to show how much value those positions provided made to the criminal justice system, because it would be challenging to find money to cover them in the general fund.

“I still want to figure out how we can fund them, but I need to figure out if they were making a difference,” she said.

Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said the employees hired through the grant always knew how their positions were funded, but he said he was committed to keeping cuts to a minimum.

“It definitely makes it difficult once those grants come to an end,” he said. “But we hear from a lot of people the benefit and the hard work that goes on in pre-trial services.”