The Spokane region’s efforts to reform and improve its criminal justice system won renewed financial backing on Tuesday.
With an additional $700,000 in funding over the next two years, local officials plan to implement a number of measures aimed at reducing the jail population and eliminating racial inequities, including a new program to support defendants who are released while awaiting trial.
The grant was awarded by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It funds the joint efforts of the city of Spokane and Spokane County to better the Spokane region’s criminal justice system.
Several of the local plans outlined Tuesday are targeted at reducing the rate of people in Spokane who fail to appear for a court appearance, which can lead to their incarceration and contribute to overpopulation of the jail.
“We are committed to being an efficient and cost effective government for our tax payers,” Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said in a statement on Tuesday. “Our goal of safely reforming our criminal justice system can only be accomplished through our regional collaborations and working across departments for the betterment of our community.”
In Spokane, 18% of the people released from jail between May 2018 and April 2019 had been incarcerated because they failed to appear in court.
The new burst of financial support will help stand up a “Supported Release” program modeled after a similar system deployed by New York City in 2015 to ensure defendants show up to court appointments and avoid rearrest.
New York has seen a reduction in the number of people held on bail in large part due to its Supervised Release program.
A cadre of Spokane-area officials, including Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, traveled to New York City to witness its reform efforts firsthand in 2019.
“It certainly helped for me to see it vividly,” Beggs said.
Like in New York, Spokane plans to task a community nonprofit with screening defendants eligible for Supervised Release and directing them to services such as mental health treatment and employment assistance. It will also provide defendants with court reminders.
“In addition to ensuring the return for court, it also is designed to help folks stabilize and access whatever resources they need in the community,” said Maggie Yates, Spokane Regional Law and Justice Administrator, whose office oversees the MacArthur grant in coordination with an eight-member steering committee.
Effectively, Supported Release will offer judges a pretrial option besides simply holding a person in jail or sending them back into the community without support, Beggs said.
“This is kind of a third way that says with support of this agency with a good track record, there’s a good chance they’re not going to miss their court date,” Beggs said. “It just gives more flexibility and it reserves limited and scarce jail beds for those people who really are dangerous.”
Unlike probation, people in Supported Release are still presumed innocent while awaiting trial and cannot be mandated to participate in services, Beggs said. But with a nonprofit to help them navigate social services, more defendants will already be making progress before their case is adjudicated, Beggs added.
When people are allowed to remain in the community, “the jail population stays small, and we know statistically that people do better when they’re out of jail,” said Carmen Pacheco-Jones, a member of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council who chairs its Racial Equity Committee.
Still, Pacheco-Jones stressed the need for the program to be built in a way that ensures access to Black, Indigenous, people of color and non-English speakers who are disproportionately “put into jail and receive higher sentences, higher charges, and their charges are often not negotiated down.”
Pacheco-Jones said there also needs to be conscious effort to reduce the barriers to the housing and employment opportunities that Supported Release aims to connect defendants with.
Beggs echoed that sentiment, and supported building “more capacity for all of it – housing, child care, education, trade work, (and) substance abuse treatment.”
“It pays in the longrun. It’s much cheaper to address these issues upstream,” Beggs added.
While details have yet to be finalized, Supported Release is expected to launch in Spokane Municipal and Spokane District Courts. The MacArthur Grant will fund $300,000 for its implementation in District Court, while $250,000 has already been set aside by the Spokane City Council.
The council allocated funding for the program from public safety levy funds in its 2020 budget, but the money was never spent.
Spokane has participated in the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge since 2015, with the foundation’s investment now totaling $4.5 million in Spokane and $246 million nationally. It was one of 15 communities to receive additional funding on Tuesday.
Officials credit the challenge with helping to reduce the population of the Spokane County Jail by 8% leading up the pandemic, which then prompted a rapid and dramatic reduction in the number of inmates due to health concerns.
Furthering its efforts to ensure defendants appear in court, Spokane also hopes to use the funding to provide cell phones to low-income people and free rides to court-related appointments.
The grant will also be used to support initiatives that are already underway, including employment of a data specialist whose work has led to the creation of an interactive dashboard of criminal justice data, where anyone can track trends in metrics like the jail population.
That data was useful last year as officials determined who to release from the jail as they worked to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. At its nadir, the jail’s population was reduced by 41% compared to before the pandemic.
The funding will also continue to support the county’s criminal justice information hotline, which operates from Sunday through Friday to help relay details about court appointments to defendants.
People who connect with the hotline, according to its data, are more likely to show up in court, Yates said.
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