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Shawn Vestal: Bar association brings discussion of racial justice to community

Public defender Francis Adewale, center front, and prosecutor Adam Papini, rear, talk to Community Court participants on Feb. 29, 2016, at the Spokane Public Library in downtown Spokane. Spokane Community Court, which closed in March due to COVID-19, is scheduled to reopen on Monday, June 29, 2020.  (DAN PELLE)
Public defender Francis Adewale, center front, and prosecutor Adam Papini, rear, talk to Community Court participants on Feb. 29, 2016, at the Spokane Public Library in downtown Spokane. Spokane Community Court, which closed in March due to COVID-19, is scheduled to reopen on Monday, June 29, 2020. (DAN PELLE)

In the mind of Francis Adewale, it’s past time to stop debating whether we need to accept the fact that there is systemic racism in the justice system, or making semantic arguments against trying to achieve equity in the legal system.

“We need to look at it,” said Adewale, a public defender with the city. “We can’t bury our head in the sand and deny there is systemic racism in the justice system.”

Adewale is part of the team that represents perhaps this city’s greatest triumph in working against the inequities in our system of justice: Community Court. Spokane’s Community Court, launched in 2013 and now on the verge of expanding to a third location, is a bold and humane approach to the forces that can trap some people in cycles of criminal recidivism, such as addiction, mental illness and poverty.

The court gives defendants charged with nonviolent, low-level crimes a chance to avoid jail time if they develop a plan to get help with their problems, meet regularly with the judge and attorneys to report on their progress, and connect to services such as housing assistance, treatment options or other services.

At Community Court, the services are right there, easy to access – literally in the next room. And over the course of seven years, it’s proving that such “problem-solving courts” – as opposed to treating everything with a jail cell – can reduce repeat offenses and help defendants improve their lives.

It’s an excellent example of creative, effective justice. Adewale, and the Spokane County Bar Association, think we need more efforts like it.

The association is holding a forum Saturday to “challenge racism in the Spokane regional justice system,” and unlike most continuing-education programs it offers, it’s intended for everyone, said Jenae Ball, association president.

“Our conference is not limited to just attorneys,” Ball said. “It’s for members of the community, stakeholders in the system, judges – we hope anyone who’s interested will attend.”

The event will include presentations by two state Supreme Court justices, presentations on racism in the justice system, and a variety of other breakout sessions.

Gloria Ochoa-Bruck, a former bar association trustee, said in a statement that it’s important to understand the systemic – as opposed to the individual – nature of the racial inequities in the system.

“There is a growing understanding that in order to undo and eliminate the outcomes of racial and ethnic disparities that exist in our systems and institutions, we need go beyond framing racial and ethnic disparities as solely being the result of personal bias and prejudice,” she said. “There is expanding awareness that we inherited institutions and systems that were established and created with then-acceptable racist laws, policies, and practices that were designed to exclude Blacks and other people of color from economic opportunities, access to education, housing, health care and civic participation.”

Ball said that one of the event’s goals is to move past the cycle of talking about a problem, and then forgetting it. She said the association sees this moment as a call to action, and that it intends to emerge from the forum with a plan to take specific steps to address racism in the justice system.

“We know there’s a problem,” she said. “What are we going to do about it? How are we going to concretely effect change?”

Adewale said one example might be a push to increase the level of volunteer services offered by attorneys here. Access to legal representation is a key area in which our system favors the wealthy over the poor.

The bar association is one of many organizations that has announced a renewed focus on racial justice in the wake of the George Floyd killings and intense wave of national protests continuing to this moment in the wake of this week’s announcement of the prosecutions in the Breonna Taylor case.

Adewale’s work in Community Court has given him a front-row seat on the ways that people can find themselves trapped when a minor criminal charge is compounded by poverty, racial inequality, mental illness or addiction.

He described a client with a conviction on his record that repeatedly prevented him from getting an apartment, even though he had a federal housing voucher to guarantee payment. Eventually, he gave up, living on the street, where his likelihood of being cited simply for sitting and lying down could start a whole new series of legal obstacles.

That is the cycle Community Court is set to break – and it’s one that the larger efforts at criminal justice reform in this community are targeting as well, trying to shift the system toward less incarceration, more pretrial supervision and finding ways to combat inequities.

Community Court started seven years ago, with weekly meetings in the bottom floor of the downtown library. It expanded to the Northeast Community Center, and has just received funding that will allow it to establish a third location in the East Central Neighborhood, Adewale said.

A study conducted by Washington State University and released last year showed that defendants who went through the court had a much lower rate of reoffending that defendants with similar charges who did not, and lower than the historical average as well.

It has shown great promise – and it’s convinced Adewale that we need even more such justice in Spokane.

“The poor in our city are struggling,” Adewale said. “When we leave the poor behind, our whole system of justice is in danger, because a threat to justice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

Contact Shawn Vestal at shawnv@spokesman.com or (509) 459-5431.

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