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This column reflects the opinion of the writer. Learn about the differences between a news story and an opinion column.

Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Jail data shows that rates of re-offense didn’t change with more releases

Early in the pandemic, as the county slashed the number of people being held in jail, some saw the possibility of a real-time experiment: Can we safely and effectively lower the number of people incarcerated at such great expense and with such dubious effectiveness?

The early days suggested we could. The jail population plummeted, and crime did not skyrocket – in fact, crime reports overall fell in the months after this happened and have continued to do so, a pattern that has persisted despite the fact some violent crimes, including murders, rose sharply last year.

Now comes a deeper dive into this data from the Regional Office of Law and Justice, and it reinforces the earlier findings, as well as revealing sharp racial disparities in the ways the jail population has been managed during the pandemic.

New data from the office shows that even as the jail population fell significantly – it was 30% lower in August than the baseline population from about five years earlier – the percentage of those released who were booked again on a violent crime stayed the same.

That doesn’t mean it never happened. It means that it happened at the same rate that it was happening before the jail population shrunk – indicating that the releases weren’t driving a change in violent crime.

These figures come from a report prepared by Maggie Yates, the regional law and justice administrator, and presented recently to the downtown Rotary Club. Yates declined to comment on the figures, but provided a copy of the presentation.

Before the pandemic, from January 2019 to February 2020, an average of 112 people per month who were released from jail were readmitted on a charge of a violent crime within three months of their release.

That represented 6% of those released.

The raw numbers changed, but that percentage stayed at 6% during the first three months after the jail population was slashed, and again from June of 2020 to February 2021.

The percentage of readmissions on violent crimes within six months of release was 9% in the period just before the pandemic. It rose to 10% from March 2020 to May 2020, after the largest initial drop in jail population, and returned to 9% between June 2020 and February 2021.

A flat line, in other words.

There are limitations to this data. It does not capture the number of people who were never booked into jail because of the pandemic restrictions, but only cited and released. And it does not capture the repeat offenders committing nonviolent crimes.

Still, it will be important to keep this in mind when the push for a big new jail returns, as it inevitably will. We cleared out a third of the jail population, and didn’t alter the rate of violent crime committed by those released.

Meanwhile, the patterns of release in the report show stark racial disparities. In short, almost all of the reduction in the jail population was achieved by jailing fewer white people. The 30% decline in the jail population mentioned above – not counting the 150 or so beds the county contracts out to other agencies – was substantially achieved in the white population, which declined 33%, from 612 to 408.

The number of Black people incarcerated fell just 12%, from 103 to 91. The Hispanic population stayed about the same, from 33 to 29. The Native American/Alaska native cohort did drop 56%, from 61 to 27 – the relatively small numbers produced that dramatic percentage.

The reasons for this disparity aren’t immediately obvious. But they make it hard to argue that there isn’t something systemic at work, as does so much other data about the criminal justice system.

Asking these questions is the mission of the project that Yates leads for Spokane County. The county received a MacArthur Foundation Safety and Justice Challenge Grant in 2018 – which was renewed until the end of December 2022 – to study the local justice system with two goals in mind: finding alternatives to incarceration and examining racial disparities in the justice system.

This work has sometimes put the project in conflict with the county’s elected leadership – from commissioners to the sheriff to the prosecutor – who fundamentally do not share these goals and have pushed back repeatedly against the notion of seeking alternatives to jail-first, jail-only justice.

Even a relatively minor issue, such as a proposal by the Regional Law and Justice Council to adopt a nonbinding goal of racial equity in the distribution of justice, produced a passionate resistance from Prosecutor Larry Haskell and was eventually rejected by the County Commission.

That tension has undermined the grant work in this community, though the office has taken a lot of positive steps. It has worked on ways of reducing the number of court dates missed by defendants – to try and stop the common pattern in which a defendant misses a court date on a minor charge, only to become a felon on a failure-to-appear charge.

This alone accounts for 17% of the jail population. The council is working on ways to make sure defendants get to court, by improving court notices, adding reminders and even providing cellphones to defendants who don’t have them in order to receive reminders.

The new figures do not tell the entire story of the jail during the pandemic, but they reinforce what continues to emerge as a result of the jail strategies during the time of COVID-19.

A smaller jail population does not, in and of itself, seem to be a threat to public safety.

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