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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Proposal to dissolve Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council would silence voices for reform, multiple members say

The Spokane County Courthouse in August 2020.   (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Carmen Pacheco-Jones has been fighting for criminal justice reform in Spokane for years.

The region has made a lot of progress toward addressing racial inequities in her time here, she says. And Pacheco-Jones doesn’t want to see the criminal justice system take a step backward.

But she fears a new proposal to dissolve the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council would do exactly that.

Reform advocates are bashing a proposal from Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell to eliminate the 25-member Law and Justice Council and replace it with a 13-member Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee. The concept is under consideration by the Spokane County Commission.

Haskell’s proposal draws heavily from an October report by the independent Spokane Criminal Justice Commission, which wrote the 2014 “Blueprint for Reform” that led to the re-establishment of the Law and Justice Council.

The Criminal Justice Commission’s report argued that the Law and Justice Council is failing to live up to its charge because it has too many members, too much infighting and receives “ongoing public scrutiny.”

The Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council doesn’t have any decision-making power. It’s an advisory body made up of leaders in local government, criminal justice and the general community. The council exists to help the county create a “racially equitable, cost-effective criminal justice system.”

If the Spokane County Commission adopts Haskell’s resolution as written, the new committee would have a narrower focus. Some Law and Justice Council members said the smaller committee wouldn’t work much on reform or racial equity. Instead, it would mainly deal with interactions between local jails and the state prison system.

Under the proposal, the four at-large community representatives would lose their seats, as would a host of local elected officials, including the county commissioners, Spokane County public defender, Spokane mayor and a Spokane council member.

The new committee would retain most of the seats designated for individuals who specifically work in criminal justice – the sheriff, prosecutor and court representatives, for instance.

Many Law and Justice Council members strongly oppose dissolving the Law and Justice Council, arguing the community representatives are the ones best able to advocate for people of color, victims of crime, the homeless, the previously incarcerated, the mentally ill and people who have substance abuse disorders.

Multiple council members told The Spokesman-Review that those groups, which are disproportionately impacted by the criminal justice system, need more representation, not less.

“(This proposal) eliminates the voices of people who are often marginalized and most deeply impacted by the criminal justice system,” said Erin Williams Hueter, who holds one of the council’s at-large community member seats and serves as director of Lutheran Community Services Northwest.

People within the system don’t understand how law enforcement and jails affect people of color and other marginalized groups, Pacheco-Jones said. That’s why the community representatives are so important.

“We know better,” she said. “What the community brings is a collective voice and leverage on reform.”

She said Haskell and the county commissioners “want to go back into their siloed existence where they’re not held accountable by the community.”

Spokane County Commissioner Al French, who chairs the Law and Justice Council, said county commissioners haven’t made any decisions yet about changing the council’s structure. He said he doesn’t want to see community voices go away.

“I think it’s premature to assume they’d be removed,” French said. “If it is somebody’s agenda, it’s not mine. … The citizen voices can be very much part of the new structure.”

The commissioner said he doesn’t know yet if he’s in favor of dissolving the Law and Justice Council.

“I’m looking forward to the ongoing discussion,” he said.

Multiple Law and Justice Council members and reform advocates said the push for a scaled-back Law and Justice Council isn’t new. Haskell has long argued for this, they said.

Kurtis Robinson, who sits on the council’s Racial Equity subcommittee, said the prosecutor’s office and county commissioners have been working to suppress the community voice on the council for years.

“This is not a new game being played,” Robinson said during the subcommittee’s Thursday meeting.

Spokane Valley City Attorney Cary Driskell has a seat on the council and chairs its Strategic Planning subcommittee. He said he’s strongly opposed to paring down the Law and Justice Council.

“I’m not sure cutting it back would result in a more functional committee,” he said, adding that it would be more difficult for the stripped-down committee to tackle racial equity and systemic bias issues.

Driskell also noted that losing municipal seats would be a blow. For instance, Spokane Valley only has a representative on the council because Driskell’s serving on behalf of all county municipalities besides Spokane.

Under the proposed structure, Spokane would lose its allotted mayoral and council seats. All cities would have one lone representative on the new committee.

There’s nothing wrong with the county looking at different approaches, Driskell said. But he questioned why it would reduce input from people of color and community advocates if the council’s goal is to improve the criminal justice system.

“If we believe that parts of our system need to be fixed, this seems to be probably not the best approach,” Driskell said. “Generally speaking if you want to solve problems, you take in the maximum amount of information. It seems to me like we’re not doing that.”

Haskell did not respond to The Spokesman-Review’s multiple requests for comment.