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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Law and Justice Council recommends county split it in two

The Spokane County Courthouse and Public Safety Building are pictured in 2019.  (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

A council threatened with being disbanded has proposed a compromise in an attempt to maintain community voices in the examination of the legal system in Spokane County.

The Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council on Wednesday voted 11-7 in favor of a proposal that would break the council into two separate groups.

The Law and Justice Council is an advisory committee that provides the county commissioners with recommendations on criminal justice issues and reform. It’s made up of criminal justice professionals, elected officials and at-large community members.

In March, Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell argued in a resolution that the county commissioners should dissolve the 25-member Law and Justice Council and replace it with a 13-member Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee.

Haskell’s proposal borrowed from an October Blueprint for Reform report by the independent Spokane Criminal Justice Commission. That report said the Law and Justice Council had become too large and unwieldy and was failing to live up to its mission due to infighting and “ongoing public scrutiny.”

The smaller committee Haskell envisions would remove community representatives and several elected officials while keeping many criminal justice professionals, such as the sheriff and prosecutor. It would primarily focus on interactions between the local jail and state prison system, whereas the current Law and Justice Council often discusses broader criminal justice reform issues.

Many Spokane community members have emphatically opposed a stripped-down council that lacks community representation. Some have argued that in order to reform the criminal justice system, which disproportionately impacts people of color, the Law and Justice Council needs to hear more from at-large community leaders, not less.

A majority of Law and Justice Council members have said they oppose Haskell’s plan, and most have indicated they want to retain community voices. But even some council members that oppose Haskell’s plan have acknowledged the group’s discussions have stagnated in the last couple of years.

The Law and Justice Council’s Strategic Planning Committee put together a two-council proposal that was discussed at Wednesday’s meeting. The two-council approach would be a compromise.

One council would align with Haskell’s proposal, fulfilling the minimum requirement outlined in Washington law .

The second council would include “robust community participation,” elected officials and criminal justice professionals. That body would continue to tackle criminal justice reform.

Spokane County Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno told the county commissioners that even if they dissolve the Law and Justice Council, it still will convene informally.

“We made promises to the community,” Moreno said. “I intend to keep those promises.”

Spokane County commissioners have not yet explicitly stated whether or not they’d like to dissolve the Law and Justice Council.

But commissioner Al French, who chairs the Law and Justice Council, said he believes some council members no longer speak at meetings because they don’t feel comfortable sharing their opinions.

“I want to create an environment that’s safe for everybody to share their thoughts,” French said.

French said the county commissioners plan to make a decision within the next month about the Law and Justice Council’s fate. Whatever decision the commission makes, French said it won’t be one that entails ceding any of the county commission’s power.

The Strategic Planning Committee’s plan asks that the county commissioners and government entities involved with the second council grant it “at least some authority to make the council more than just a recommending body” – the current Law and Justice Council is only a recommending body.

“That’s not going to happen,” French said. “I’m not going to relegate that authority or responsibility to another group that is going to manage county funds.”