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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spokane City Council leaves Community Court plans in limbo

UPDATED: Tue., Oct. 20, 2020

Spokane Municipal Community Court was forced Monday to pause plans to hire a leader for its new East Central location as a skeptical Spokane City Council digs for more details.

The council deferred a vote, for two weeks, on whether or not to accept a grant that will facilitate the Spokane Municipal Community Court’s expansion into a new location at the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at East Central.

The expansion will be funded by a $166,000 federal grant that must be approved by the City Council.

Monday marked the third consecutive week that council members have raised questions about Community Court’s new location.

Community Court exists as a way to divert people accused of low-level crimes away from jail and into social resources, a mission the council members have expressed support for. Community Court already operates a location downtown and in northeast Spokane, but has seen pushback as it attempts to open a third.

While some council members have lauded the court’s mission, they continued to wonder why administrators selected the Martin Luther King Jr. Center at East Central as the new home – and why the City Council wasn’t more involved in the process.

Councilwoman Betsy Wilkerson has questioned why the court can’t be held at the Spokane Resource Center on Arthur Street, which already houses numerous social service providers.

Administrators with the court have urged the council to not delay acceptance of the grant over their concerns about the court’s new home. They stressed the location of the court’s new branch is not tied directly to the grant and that the funding will be used to hire a social services coordinator.

Community Court has already launched its sessions in East Central, but acceptance of the grant will allow the court to hire a Poverty and Alleviation Treatment Case Manager, who must be an East Central resident, for two years.

Francis Adewale, the court’s lead public defender, said it was “baffling” for the council to hold up the hiring of a grant-funded position if its members’ concerns are regarding the location. The candidates will be reviewed by an advisory panel consisting of neighborhood residents .

But Councilman Michael Cathcart, who proposed deferring a vote to Nov. 2, noted that the council has requested a job description for the position and has yet to receive one.

“I don’t see the urgency on either side, and I want to make sure that we’re taking time, being thoughtful, and meeting with all of those involved,” Cathcart said.

Council President Breean Beggs said he’s tapped Lonnie Mitchell Sr., the recently retired pastor of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, to lead a community conversation about the new location.

Wilkerson said she welcomes that conversation “so we are all in agreement” prior to the council’s vote.

The purpose of the Community Court is to connect people accused of nonviolent misdemeanors to service providers, like mental health professionals or housing coordinators, instead of imposing jail sentences.

The court’s administrators say its approach leads to lower rates of recidivism among defendants, and its proponents on the city council have argued it’s a cheaper approach to criminal justice than paying for a stay in jail.

People do not have to be cited and referred to Community Court to use its services, which are open to walk-ins.

The council is required to 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.

The deferral of a vote on the grant won the support of four council members on Monday. Beggs and Councilwoman Kate Burke voted against the deferral. Councilwoman Candace Mumm was absent.

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