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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Law and Justice Council members push back against proposal to dissolve their group

The Spokane County Courthouse and Public Safety Building are pictured in 2019. Members of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council are pushing back against a proposal to dissolve their group and replace it with a smaller committee.   (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Most members of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council strongly oppose a plan to dissolve the group and replace it with a smaller, more narrowly focused committee. Only a few members supported downsizing the council during the group’s Wednesday meeting.

The Law and Justice Council is tasked with helping the county develop a more racially equitable and cost-effective criminal justice system.

It’s made up of local politicians, criminal justice leaders and at-large community representatives. The council is an advisory body, lacking decision-making power, but its recommendations have often guided Spokane County criminal justice reform.

Back in October, the independent Spokane Criminal Justice Commission did a report on the Law and Justice Council, concluding that it had become too big. Having so many members has made the council “unwieldy,” the report said, and infighting had made it less effective.

The county commissioners should consider dissolving the council and replacing it with a smaller committee, the report argued.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell – who has a seat on the Law and Justice Council – then sent a resolution to the county commissioners that pulled language directly from the report.

Haskell’s idea is to remove the council’s four at-large community members and most of the elected officials, while retaining many of the career criminal justice professionals – the county sheriff, prosecutor and court representatives, for instance.

The new body would meet the state’s minimum requirements, but it would mainly deal with jail and prison issues, not larger questions about reform.

Haskell’s pitch received strong pushback from reform advocates, who said the board needs to hear more, not less, from marginalized groups such as people of color, the homeless and victims of crime. Removing community voices will make it hard for the new council to tackle reform issues, they argued.

At Wednesday’s monthly Law and Justice Council meeting, most members said they understand the concerns about the council’s size, but said they don’t think reducing community representation will make the council more effective or productive.

“Our diversity on this council is our greatest strength,” said Justin Bingham, the city prosecutor’s representative. “I would hate to lose that.”

Only a few members openly supported Haskell’s plan.

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said he doesn’t want the community voices to go away but added he thinks the council’s size is a problem. Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich told The Spokesman-Review that the council “has to be reigned back in so we can actually get something done.”

Spokane County commissioners Al French, Josh Kerns and Mary Kuney – who will eventually decide whether to dissolve the council – did not express their opinions during the meeting.

If the county commissioners do dissolve the council, they probably won’t do it until next month. Council members voted 15-6 to have their Strategic Planning subcommittee develop recommendations on how to tweak or restructure the council. Those recommendations will be presented at the council’s May meeting.

French, who chairs the Law and Justice Council, opposed that motion, arguing it was beyond the Strategic Planning Committee’s purview. But he and the other commissioners abstained from the vote.

John Haley, one of the four at-large community representatives, emphasized that the Law and Justice Council has achieved a lot since it was re-established seven years ago. It has worked to address poverty, addiction and racial equity. It will continue to make progress, he said, but it has to exist in order to get anything done.

“I see us going backwards for a few years,” Haley said of Haskell’s proposal, “and ending up back in the same place.”