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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Shawn Vestal: Instead of just ignoring calls for change, prosecutor wants to shut them down

Kurtis Robinson  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Kurtis Robinson (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

The single most important thing to know about the proposal to slash community voices and reformers from the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council may be this: The prosecutor, sheriff and police chief all support it.

When leaders want to tune out the nettlesome voices of the community – when they want to “simplify” the messy, drawn-out, frustrating chorus of contrary opinions – that’s an excellent sign that those voices should continue to be heard, and especially those voices who are calling for the examination of racial inequities.

“If anything,” said Kurtis Robinson, the former head of Spokane’s NAACP and a veteran of the community’s public debates about justice, “this is a time to add more voices.”

Unsurprisingly, Prosecutor Larry Haskell is the source of the proposal to cut the SRLJC from 26 members to 13, including sharp reductions in representation for the city of Spokane and the elimination of four community members. He proposes replacing the community voices with a five-member subcommittee.

He is acting on a recommendation from the Blueprint for Reform update of 2020, a follow-up to a 2013 report that outlined suggestions for improving the local criminal justice system. The Blueprints template has been a good one for Spokane, offering many strong and insightful suggestions to the justice system.

The update points to many ways in which the system could be improved that Haskell has not taken up – including the expansion of drug court and improvements to early-case resolution efforts to reduce jail crowding.

It also pointedly notes that one of the biggest strains on the local justice system is Haskell’s own overcharging of low-level felonies. He has regularly filed more charges of all kinds – including simple drug possession, until recently – than his peers statewide.

“Several agencies reported to us that the number of felony filings has strained the system,” the report read. “The ECR Courts, Therapeutic Courts, trial courts, jail, and public defenders have been overwhelmed by the number of filings. Spokane County files more felony cases than King County. Prosecutor Haskell has reported to us that he has no choice but to file felony cases when the probable cause is presented. We disagree.”

That was the judgment of two of the three officials who wrote the update.

Haskell has not proposed any changes on that front, of course. No, he’s focused on the one that would undermine the body that often proposes alternatives to the Haskell way, in which all roads lead to a costly, massive jail.

Chief Craig Meidl supports Haskell’s proposal, saying the council has been too focused on trying to reduce the jail population. Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich – who has often had harsh words for those who oppose his vision for a huge new jail – also endorsed it, saying the body is too large and ineffective.

If the council is slow-moving and unwieldy, it may be as much a matter of this resistance as the council’s size. The council’s majority – including representatives of the city prosecutor’s office, public defenders, and the courts – often sails into a stiff wind of opposition from county leaders, and Haskell in particular. Haskell has apparently assigned himself to be the one-man wrecking crew against Smart Justice in Spokane and is a determined opponent of any effort to examine and address racial inequities.

This is among the most urgent reasons that the SRLJC should not be gutted along the lines that Haskell proposes. It threatens to shut down the conversation about racial justice, on behalf of those who refuse to accept the obvious truth that our justice system is shot through with systemic bias.

An illustrative example came last year, when the SRLJC proposed that the county adopt a nonbinding goal of achieving racial equity in its justice system. This would be a fairly straightforward goal, an idea represented by such efforts as drug courts. Haskell led the charge to reject this proposal, abetted by Al French and the credulous County Commission.

Haskell called it unconstitutional and worried that lawsuits might result; French fretted that it might be a prelude to a call for reparations.

The efforts of the SRLJC were brushed aside.

Now, instead of just ignoring the SRLJC, Haskell and the guardians of tradition would like to shut them up altogether.

Naturally, they insist the public would still have a voice. But the proposal to create a subcommittee of community members would establish a kids table for the public – away from the place where the adults do the real work. It is naked in its intent; county commissioners would be helping to thwart years of positive efforts to consider and implement reforms if they adopt this mirage of public participation.

In this half-hearted pretense of a citizens subcommittee, Robinson, the former leader of the NAACP and now a member of the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, sees the renewal of an old game played by change-resistant leaders.

He calls it the Game of 4s and 5s. Take any proposal for reform, he said, you’ll have those in favor – the 1s and 2s – the neutral 3s, and those opposed – the 4s and 5s, who are often the keepers of the status quo.

The 4s and 5s create subcommittees. They hold public hearings. They promise to listen. They order reports from friendly analysts. They derail ongoing efforts and replace them with more efficient new programs that start over at ground zero.

And, in the end, they keep doing what they’re doing.

“They love to tell you, ‘We want to listen to you. Yeah, we want to hear what you’ve got to say,’ ” Robinson said. “But they actually have no intention of doing anything about it.”

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