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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  Crime/Public Safety

Are Washington’s ‘woke’ criminal justice reforms filling Idaho’s jails? One sheriff thinks so

UPDATED: Wed., April 20, 2022

Bob Norris
Bob Norris

Some sheriffs are complaining about what they say are Washington’s “woke” criminal justice reforms creating cross-border problems.

Kootenai County is feeling the effects of such policies for criminal offenders because of its close proximity to Washington, Sheriff Robert Norris said earlier this month.

In a news release about an inmate who tried to escape from his jail, which is understaffed, Norris said the future of public safety is concerning, considering the county’s increased population growth and the sheriff’s office’s hiring challenges.

“We have seen the failures of alternative bail programs, felony defendants released on a citation, or weak sentences on serious violent suspects across this country, and quite simply, they do not work,” Norris said in the release, calling the neighboring state’s policies “woke.” “Holding the criminal population accountable for their actions will keep Kootenai County safe and provide an incentive for criminals to change their behavior.”

“Woke” is often used as an insult to describe people, or policies in this case, that are mindful of racial and social justice issues.

Washington has adopted a series of criminal justice reforms in recent years, including changing laws about drug possession and police chases.

Norris could not be reached after multiple requests for comment through the office’s public information officer.

Across the border, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich backed Norris’ comments, saying the “evidence is there.”

He said repeat offenders are arrested, released on their own recognizance or make bail, and then arrested again for allegedly committing another crime.

“You see it on a continual basis,” Knezovich said.

Knezovich noted Adam J. Bennett as an example.

Bennett was sentenced Feb. 22 to 43 days in jail and given credit for time served for burglary and malicious mischief in Spokane County. The sentence was well below the standard range of three to nine months for first-degree malicious mischief and nine to 12 months for second-degree burglary because the court gave Bennett a first-time offender waiver.

Six days later, Bennett allegedly shot and killed 77-year-old Dennis L. Rogers outside Rogers’ Hauser Lake home. Bennett remains in the Kootenai County Jail on murder, attempted murder and other felony charges.

Knezovich said holding criminals accountable is the solution to decreasing repeat violent offenses. But, he maintained “you’ll never arrest your way out of this thing.”

“You have to have a dual philosophy,” Knezovich said. “We’re going to hold you accountable but at the same time we’re going to try to find out what the criminogenic drivers are to your behavior and fix those behaviors, and hopefully get you back on the right path. It’s called smart justice.”

Drug abuse and mental health issues are major factors that lead to crime, Knezovich said. Treating those problems while helping people improve job skills and education, and eventually assisting in finding a job and stable housing, will deter crime.

“Guess what? It works. We’ve seen it work. We’ve had these successes,” he said.

Knezovich said incarceration is the answer for those who continually refuse to change their ways.

“We’ve known what the solutions are for a long time but there are people out there that truly believe there should not be a jail at all, and people should never go to jail,” Knezovich said. “I wish we lived in a utopia, but we don’t.”

He said drug and mental health treatment should be happening in jail and prison.

Similar to Knezovich, Kurtis Robinson, executive director of I Did the Time, said the focus should be addressing the root cause of people’s criminal behavior rather than incarceration.

I Did the Time works to reduce discrimination against formerly incarcerated people. Robinson serves on the Washington state Criminal Justice Training Commission and previously as president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP.

“We have to start really looking at how do we start addressing the social trauma that is creating the justice-involved event instead of continuing to do how we’ve done business, which is come at it from this highly punitive perspective, which is just basically carving its way through our entire human family and especially our communities of color.”

He said many criminals are traumatized before entering jail or prison, and then the trauma continues while they are locked up.

“People are getting retraumatized in there,” Robinson said.

He said the violence rate in confinement is 10 times greater than outside confinement.

“So the real question is, why don’t they see that?” Robinson said. “Why aren’t they acknowledging that and implementing those kinds of practices across all spectrums, let alone in their own neighborhood in Kootenai County?”

Robinson said it’s a “hard call” when asked whether incarceration was the appropriate punishment for repeat offenders.

“Should we ever give up on a human being?” he asked.

Robinson, who was formerly incarcerated, said he had a lifetime of trauma, and the only way he knew how to engage with society was in an “anti-social way.” It took a sustained period of trauma-informed engagement to recover.

“The question is, are we doing that?” Robinson asked.

Meanwhile, Knezovich said failing to hold people accountable for crimes is “a running joke with criminals in this area.”

Some law enforcement officials have said drivers flee from authorities because, per state law, they know they can only pursue them in certain situations, such as if the driver or passenger committed a violent or sex offense, or is under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

Last week, a driver told a Spokane County Sheriff’s Office deputy he fled from law enforcement because he believed the deputy would not chase him, according to a sheriff’s office news release.

The deputy pulled over a driver, Jonathan R. Leach, April 13 for allegedly failing to stop at a stop sign, the release said.

The deputy contacted Leach, who reportedly showed signs of impairment and admitted to drinking that night. Leach then allegedly sped away in the truck he was driving after the deputy asked him to step out of the vehicle.

The deputy lost sight of Leach during the high-speed pursuit, but Leach was located later that night. Leach was arrested on suspicion of DUI and attempting to elude a police vehicle.

Leach said he had bad information and that, “They won’t chase you anymore,” the release said.

Knezovich said everyone needs to come to the table and agree there’s a problem that needs fixing.

“We have a broken criminal justice system and there is a better way to do business,” he said.

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