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‘The challenge of East Central’: Community Court expands into neighborhood, drawing questions from elected representative

Spokane City Council Member Betsy Wilkerson speaks during a Black Lives Matter protest and march that ended up at City Hall on Sunday, August 30, 2020, in Spokane, Wash.  (Adam Shanks / The Spokesman-Review)
Spokane City Council Member Betsy Wilkerson speaks during a Black Lives Matter protest and march that ended up at City Hall on Sunday, August 30, 2020, in Spokane, Wash. (Adam Shanks / The Spokesman-Review)

A new Spokane Municipal Community Court branch in the East Central Neighborhood is an evolution in the reformation of the city’s criminal justice system, but one Spokane City Council member has questioned whether a community center and neighborhood pillar is the right home for it.

The city received a federal grant to expand its Community Court into the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at East Central, but Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson, an East Central resident, probed the plan in a committee meeting last week and again on Monday.

Particularly, Wilkerson called out the court’s goal of alleviating poverty, saying Monday that to “identify a whole neighborhood as ‘poverty alleviation’ is disconcerting to the folks who live down there … One of them would be me.’ ”

“We always hear ‘poverty alleviation,’ and we never hear ‘economic development,’ ” Wilkerson said. “That’s the challenge of East Central.”

She also challenged court administrators on the choice of the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at East Central instead of an alternative site with similar social services, such as the Spokane Resource Center.

The Community Court – which already operates a location downtown and in northeast Spokane – is lauded by progressives as a mechanism to divert people accused of low-level crimes from jail sentences and into social services that can help them overcome the underlying cause of their behavior.

For example, a person cited for violating the city’s laws against sleeping on a downtown sidewalk during the day can be referred by police to Community Court, where they could be linked with a shelter or housing provider.

The concept is that the court still can demand accountability in people who need it, but offer them a clear path to better their circumstances. Defendants in the Community Court have a 12% lower rate of reoffending than those in the city’s traditional municipal court, according to Seth Hackenberg, the court’s administrator.

The City Council’s Public Safety and Community Health Committee discussed a grant to fund the court’s expansion into a new location in the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at East Central last week and the council did again during a briefing session on Monday. The council is expected to vote on whether to accept the grant on Monday.

Freda Gandy, director of the community center, told The Spokesman-Review the Community Court fits perfectly “within our mission of actually providing comprehensive services to keep them out of the criminal justice system.”

Before Community Court ever came to East Central, Gandy noted that it already allowed people to complete court-mandated community service hours there.

“I want to be a part of providing those wraparound services for nonviolent people,” Gandy said.

If Community Court is a good fit in downtown and northeast Spokane, why can’t it be in East Central, Gandy wondered.

“I don’t see the stigma, and I don’t see how it does anything detrimental to the value of East Central,” Gandy said.

Councilwoman Kate Burke said the Northeast Community Court has been great for the Hillyard and Bemiss neighborhoods in her district. It’s also cheaper, Burke noted, than sending a person to jail.

“This is just a great, prime example of really serving people who might not have everything they need to be successful,” said Burke, the council’s most politically liberal member, at the committee meeting last week.

Wilkerson, the only Black member of the City Council, said last week that the court’s expansion into East Central sounds like systemic racism.

“We continue to deal with the stigma put on us by others of a ‘poverty alleviation’ neighborhood,” Wilkerson said. “Diversion is great, it’s a part of the criminal justice system that serves all of us well, but I think there are some challenges.”

Community Court Judge Mary Logan said addressing poverty is a component – but not the highlight – of the court’s work in East Central.

“Studies have shown us that, yes there certainly is need for some assistance, but our hope is that we are there to also bolster that which East Central is hoping for and seeing in some of the very positive projects that have happened,” Logan said last week.

The federal grant is not tied to the specific location of the court, but its leaders asked for urgency. Delaying or rejecting acceptance of the grant would “hinder the opportunity of being able to hire somebody from (the) East Central community area” to staff the program, said Francis Adewale, the court’s lead public defender.

Community Court’s East Central location launched last week, but the council still must approve the $166,000 grant to fund the expansion that was awarded by the U.S. Attorney General’s Office of Justice Programs in September.

An $88,000 portion of the grant funding the expansion will allow the court to hire a Poverty and Alleviation Treatment Case Manager, vetted by a small advisory group of people from East Central, for two years. A $15,000 portion of the grant will fund continued education for court staff on bias and implicit bias, Logan said.

“This is also to make sure that we are absolutely on the top of our game in having the sensitivity and comprehension of the population that we will be serving,” Logan said.

In response to Wilkerson’s concerns, Logan said the court hopes to change the title of the position to “social service navigator,” adding the court’s mission isn’t simply about alleviating poverty.

The case manager will be tasked with connecting the court’s clients to a broad array of services, like employment training or access to personal identification – “any of the wraparound services that Community Court is already engaged in,” Logan said.

The social service navigator will be a person who lives in East Central and interviewed by an advisory board consisting of neighborhood residents, according to Adewale.

On Monday, Wilkerson said “I really do support the program,” but continued to question its location in the community center.

Wilkerson asked why it was not instead located in the Spokane Resource Center, which also houses social services, on Arthur Avenue between West Central and downtown.

“That location has all the services that these people need,” Wilkerson said, adding “the very people you want to serve, you want to separate them, and have some at the (Resource Center) and some at the MLK Center.”

Court administrators told the council on Monday that the community center was the only viable building that would not charge it rent, and that the Resource Center had said its building was not available. Logan said East Central was actually its first choice for expansion above the Northeast, but that it held off because it did not have a certain home in East Central.

Wilkerson also lamented the “broken promise” of court administrators to include the council on discussions about the future location.

“It felt like criminal justice was just parachuting into that community,” Wilkerson said.

Unlike a traditional courtroom, the court also accepts walk-ins in addition to people who are referred.

Logan expressed confidence Monday that the court will grow in popularity and attendance.

The court had its first day of operation last Monday, with lunch available and service providers at the ready. There was one man on the docket. He did not show up.

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