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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane County shifts course on criminal justice reform program despite concerns from Prosecutor’s Office

Despite opposition from the Prosecutor’s Office, the Spokane County commissioners may change course on a significant criminal justice reform effort.  (DAN PELLE/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Spokane County appears to be shifting course on a significant, but stalled, criminal justice reform program.

On Tuesday, the commissioners gave Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich permission to find a third-party vendor to run a supported release pilot program in Spokane County District Court. The decision followed a Spokesman-Review report published less than a week earlier indicating that grant funding for the program was in jeopardy.

The commissioners have previously opted against using a third party following resistance from the Prosecutor’s Office and the advice of their attorney, who was appointed by County Prosecutor Larry Haskell.

Supported release is a criminal justice reform that gives judges the option of releasing nonviolent defendants awaiting trial and connecting them with resources – such as assistance for housing, drug addiction and mental health issues – instead of holding them in jail on a low bond.

The MacArthur Foundation has given Spokane County more than $400,000 to try supported release in District Court. It’s part of the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which provides communities throughout the country with funding to reduce jail populations and racial disparities within jails.

But the foundation has expressed frustration and disappointment with the county’s lack of progress, and said that it might ask for the return of at least $280,000 if a supported release program isn’t created soon.

Supported release has been a controversial subject within Spokane County government.

Many judges – including all eight District Court judges – and the Public Defender’s Office have said supported release could ease jail crowding, increase court appearance rates, save taxpayer money and reduce crime.

The Prosecutor’s Office argues supported release would be ineffective, open up the county to lawsuits and increase crime.

The county commissioners, who have the final say, have said they’re in favor of the program. But before Tuesday, they had abandoned the original plan of running supported release through a third-party organization in favor of a version housed within the county’s own Pretrial Services department.

The commissioners have described the change as a compromise that makes supported release possible while also addressing liability concerns. But the project might not be feasible under Pretrial Services. The MacArthur Foundation might not pay for it, Pretrial Services would have to hire new staff to manage it and defendants might be less willing to trust county employees than independent case managers.

Commissioners Mary Kuney and Josh Kerns both stressed that giving Knezovich permission to look for a community-based organization doesn’t mean the Pretrial Services option is off the table. A committee of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council will review the program before anything is finalized, they explained.

“It’s still coming back to the commissioners for approval,” Kuney said.

Still, giving permission to find a third-party organization – likely a nonprofit – represents a major shift. Former Spokane Regional Law and Justice Administrator Maggie Yates, who resigned last month, asked for the same permission twice this fall and never got it.

Kerns emphasized he’s still concerned the county could get sued if someone is released and commits a violent crime. The commissioners’ lawyer, Mark McClain, has argued that keeping supported release in-house would allow the county to monitor staff, therefore limiting liability.

“I like the program, I want to see if it works here, but I also don’t want to put the taxpayers on the hook for potentially a lot of money,” Kerns said.

District Court Judge Aimee Maurer and Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs, a longtime attorney, have said they disagree with McClain’s liability argument.

Maurer has pointed out that there’s risk with any county contract, and the third-party organization would assume the liability. Beggs has said the odds of the county getting sued for releasing someone pre-conviction are low, and the costs of any lawsuits would be more than offset by the savings the program would generate.

Kuney said she’s fine with either version of supported release but has a preference.

“I do think a third party is going to be able to do this better,” she said. “My mind hasn’t changed.”

While Knezovich’s presentation persuaded the commissioners to let him find a third-party organization, it’s unclear why the sheriff wants the pilot program to happen.

Knezovich, who in early February told The Spokesman-Review he’d never heard of supported release, spent most of his presentation talking about how the program is based on Marxist ideas, probably won’t work, is unnecessary and could hurt public safety. At no point did he appear to say supported release was a good idea for Spokane County. Attempts made to reach Knezovich after the meeting to help explain his position were unsuccessful.

He argued that statistics on New York’s supervised release program, collected from January 2020 to June 2021, don’t look promising. He specifically pointed to a Jan. 11 article by The City.

That article notes that the newest data on supervised release in New York state show 41.3% of individuals on supervised release were rearrested before their cases were resolved, compared to 18.5% for individuals released on bail and 20.4% for people released on their own recognizance. The number of individuals arrested while on supervised release has increased in the last few years since New York enacted major bail reforms that require the release of most nonviolent defendants pretrial.

Spokane County’s supported release proposal is modeled off New York City’s supervised release program, although there are key variations due to differences between Washington and New York law.

In The City’s original Dec. 31 story, former director of the New York City Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice Elizabeth Glazer notes the primary goal of supervised release is to improve court appearance rates. People on supervised release return to court 87% of the time.

Knezovich also spent some of his presentation talking about drive-by shootings in Spokane. He showed the commissioners security camera footage of a drive-by that happened Jan. 31 in Best Asian Market’s parking lot along Sprague Avenue. Miraculously, no one was injured in the shooting, Knezovich said.

“What I’m about to show you is not a video from Baghdad, Mogadishu, New York, Chicago or south of the border in a town run by cartels,” he said before starting the video. “This could have been any one of us, it could have been any one of our family members and it could have been a lot worse than it was.”

Individuals being charged for attempted murder or involvement in drive-by shootings would not be candidates for supported release. People facing those types of charges also don’t typically appear in District Court.

“In places that use supported release, they would not recommend drive-by shooters to be put into supported release,” Beggs said.

Knezovich also said he thinks the county may not need supported release because misdemeanor defendants don’t stay in jail long. According to a study of Spokane County Jail data from May 2018 to April 2019 by the JFA Institute, individuals facing misdemeanor charges spend an average of 3.6 days in jail.

“We’re basically releasing these folks as fast as we can as it is now,” Knezovich said.

Knezovich won’t be in charge of the county’s supported release program. That will fall to the county’s new senior director of law and justice Mike Sparber, who will be taking on some of Yates’ responsibilities.

But the sheriff said he’s making supported release one of his final projects before retiring at the end of the year. He said he hopes to have a third-party organization running supported release by April.

The goal, Knezovich said, is to collect data for the rest of 2022. That won’t be enough time to evaluate the program’s efficacy, though, so he said he wants to continue the pilot program through 2023.

The county’s MacArthur Foundation funding has to be used by the end of 2022, so the foundation would have to grant an extension and possibly provide more money to make that happen.

“Be very careful what we’re ready to do to our community,” Knezovich warned the commissioners. “I’m more than happy to work on these type of programs, but I am very concerned about what is going on in our community.”