By Kurtis Robinson and Mary Lou Johnson
The Board of County Commissioners recently dissolved the 7-year-old Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council (SRLJC), abandoning the only truly inclusive table where regional discussions could occur on the significant problems plaguing our criminal justice system. Why are so many pretrial people held in expensive jail cells? Why does the data show a very disparate impact on people of color? What can we do to improve outcomes for victims and the justice involved?
One would think that the elected commissioners would be interested in addressing these issues since about 70% of the county budget is absorbed by public safety. Certainly the voters will hold commissioners accountable for how they spend or squander taxpayer dollars.
Instead of continuing to engage in the critical conversations, Commissioners French, Kerns and Kuney dissolved the SRLJC, withdrew themselves, and reformed the council with a narrowed mission and fewer members. They did this almost under a veil of complete secrecy, with no advance notice to the public nor posting on the agenda for that session. The new mission statement eliminates as a goal a racially equitable system. How can they not prioritize such a critical component in addressing our system as it exists?
Elected Prosecutor Larry Haskell has objected to a goal of racial equity before and it appears the commissioners are now in agreement. Their only nod to racial equity is having a smaller advisory racial equity committee whose recommendations now go through a Legislative Policy Committee. This committee is made up of a commissioner, three mayors, the sheriff and the county prosecutor. Given the prosecutor’s hostility to the concept of racial equity and the sheriff’s conclusion that the system could not be racist because no one working in the system is a racist, it seems rather unlikely that the racial equity committee’s recommendations will receive a fair hearing. The community must therefore naturally conclude that the proven historic and current systemic racial impacts of the system are absolutely not a priority of these listed elected officials.
The Legislative Policy Committee is also troubling because not only racial equity committee recommendations are vetted by this select group but so are the recommendations of the restructured SRLJC. This means that the real subject matter experts in the community, among defense attorneys and the courts are another step removed from input to the commissioners on important issues. This is a giant step backward in collaboration and again returns power to law enforcement and the prosecution rather than balancing their voices with the community and lived experience experts. Moreover, the commissioners are now, it appears purposefully, further isolated from the voices most committed and knowledgeable about solving the problems.
The restructured council also has fewer members because the commissioners asserted that the council was too large to be effective. Yet we submit that size was not the real problem. The restructuring revealed the commissioners’ ongoing intent to do as little as possible to create any meaningful change other than solidifying their own power. Furthermore, it is rather ironic to assert that the body that you chair is ineffective since the chair of the SRLJC was always a county commissioner. Instead of just receiving reports this body could have been engaged in facilitated discussions on system issues. Community input could have been encouraged instead of being discouraged and over the last several years almost completely silenced. The voices of the impacted needed to have been centered instead of marginalized and valued instead of being blamed or dismissed.
Imagine how much progress could be made to solve the problems if the commissioners and the prosecutor were truly committed to creating a fair, effective and equitable system for victims and the justice involved. Imagine if they were willing to engage in a collaborative and inclusive manner to take the necessary steps to restructure this system that produces so many negative results. The recent actions of the incumbents show that the vision won’t be achieved on their watch. They have slowed progress by withdrawing, consolidating their power and isolating themselves.
As members of the community we have critically examined the action of the commissioners as compared to their statements. We conclude that rather than moving forward from a platform of true commitment to actual justice, the commissioners have feigned interest in addressing the issues. We call this the game of the fours and fives, which in short means this has been the commissioners’ intent the entire time. The community is painfully aware that we need a Board of County Commissioners and a prosecutor that do better for all of us.
Kurtis Robinson, Spokane NAACP #1137 1st Vice President/ RCFRC-IDTT Executive Director/ NAACP AOWSAC Political Action Chair/Smart Justice Spokane
Mary Lou Johnson, J.D., Retired; Past Vice-Chair SRLJC Strategic Planning Committee