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Criminal justice reform advocates say changes to Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council don’t ‘represent this community’

UPDATED: Wed., July 14, 2021

The Spokane County Board of Commissioners has dissolved and reformed the Law and Justice Council. The new entity will be less focused on racial equity and criminal justice reform.   (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
The Spokane County Board of Commissioners has dissolved and reformed the Law and Justice Council. The new entity will be less focused on racial equity and criminal justice reform.  (JESSE TINSLEY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Criminal justice reform advocates are bashing the replacement of the former Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council with a new makeup, a change they say muffles minority voices and represents a major step backward for racial equity.

On Wednesday, the old lineup of the Law and Justice Council met for the last time. The meeting was informal, because the Spokane County Board of Commissioners officially dissolved the group June 29.

Even before the informal meeting, the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council didn’t have any decision-making power – and its new lineup won’t either.

The council was, and will be, an advisory body made up of leaders in local government, criminal justice and the general community. It exists to advise the county commissioners on criminal justice issues.

But there are several major differences between the former and future Law and Justice Councils.

First, former Law and Justice Council members say the new council will have a different goal.

The Law and Justice Council’s website states that its mission is to create a “racially equitable, cost-effective criminal justice system.”

The resolution that forms the new council includes no reference to racial equity.

Criminal justice reform advocates say the new council will have a narrower scope and will not focus on addressing racial equity issues.

That’s glaring and meaningful, said Kurtis Robinson, who sat on the council’s racial equity subcommittee, is Black and serves as vice president of the Spokane NAACP.

Robinson said the county commissioners have created a new council that ensures they will have to hear less from criminal justice reform advocates and people of color.

“They continue to set up dynamics that at surface glance look like they are trying to do the right thing, but over time and inspection reveal their true intentions,” Robinson said.

The new council will also be smaller, with 18 members compared to the old council’s 25.

Three county commissioners, the Spokane mayor, a Spokane City Council representative, the Spokane Chief of Police and an at-large community member have lost their seats.

The new council will have five more members than required by state law – the county public defender, county pretrial services director and three at-large community members.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the new council is a “compromise,” and that the commissioners didn’t want to go all the way back to the bare minimum required by state statute.

In October, the Spokane Criminal Justice Commission wrote a report on the Law and Justice Council. The report said the council had grown unwieldy due to its large size and ineffective due to infighting. It should be scaled back, the report said.

Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell sent the county commissioners a proposal based on the findings in the Criminal Justice Commission’s report.

Haskell’s proposal would have dissolved the Law and Justice Council and replaced it with the bare minimum required by state law.

Haskell’s idea would have cut the council in half.

But Cary Driskell, Spokane Valley city attorney who represented municipalities outside of Spokane on the old council, said he doesn’t think there’s a significant difference between a 25-member council and an 18-member one. If the goal was to make the council less unwieldy, this new group doesn’t seem to be any better, he said.

The changes to the Law and Justice Council are relatively subtle, reform advocates said.

On the surface, the community input box appears to be checked by the retention of three at-large community members.

But the new council has a smaller racial equity subcommittee – only five members while the old one had 14 – and there are strings attached to the at-large community members. One has to be a victim advocate, another has to be an individual impacted by the criminal justice system and one has to be chair of the racial equity committee. All at-large community representatives will be appointed by the county commissioners, as they were before.

“I think the resolution passed by the Board of County Commissioners takes us back more than a decade,” former racial equity subcommittee member Mary Lou Johnson said.

Johnson also said the county wasn’t transparent in how it passed the resolution that dissolves and reforms the Law and Justice Council.

The commissioners discussed it in the miscellaneous section of their June 29 meeting, but it was never specifically listed on their agenda.

Spokane City Council President Breann Beggs, whose seat disappears under the new Law and Justice Council lineup, agreed with Johnson that the new council is a step backward.

“Maybe we’ll get more resolutions out of it,” he said, noting that the stripped-down council might have fewer internal disagreements. “But it won’t really solve the problem of coming up with a community solution.”

Curtis Hampton did not sit on the Law and Justice Council, but he served on the council’s racial equity subcommittee and as proxy for Carmen Pacheco-Jones, one of the at-large community members.

Hampton, who is Black, had harsh words for the commissioners regarding the rearranged council.

“This board continues to represent systemic inequities,” Hampton said. “This board does not represent this community.”

Hampton also said the new council “represents what is wrong with America today.” To address racial inequities, the council has to understand the experiences of those most impacted by the criminal justice system, Hampton said.

That means hearing more input from Black, Brown and poor people, Hampton said.

“Ask those undesirables, ‘How fair are the halls of justice?’ ” Hampton said. “Then we will truly know justice.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich supported Haskell’s proposal and was one of the Law and Justice Council members who wanted to see it scaled back.

It’s the “activists” on the council who have made the group ineffective, Knezovich said.

“I haven’t seen anything move forward from this group that really made an impact,” Knezovich said. “There is a way to fix this, but you have prevented us from fixing it.”

Knezovich also said that some assertions made by criminal justice reform advocates – who emphasize that the legal system disproportionately impacts people of color – aren’t accurate.

“The system is not racist, folks. In order for a system to be racist, the people in it have to be,” Knezovich said. “You tell me which one of my judges is racist, which one of my prosecutors, which one of my defense attorneys is racist.”

Robinson said he hopes voters are paying attention to what the county’s doing with these changes.

Even if voters weren’t paying attention, God is, Robinson warned.

“Are you paying attention?” he asked the county commissioners. “You are not invisible. We absolutely see what you’re doing. I know I do.”

Spokane County commissioners Josh Kerns and Al French could not be reached for comment as of press time.

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