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

Spokane County is about to try a criminal justice reform effort that once seemed doomed

Spokane County is moving forward with a supported release pilot program, a criminal justice reform effort that will allow judges to connect nonviolent offenders with resources rather than holding them in jail on a low bond.   (Dan Pelle/The Spokesman-Review)

After more than a year of delays, Spokane County has found a contractor to run a supported release pilot program that will give judges more options when deciding whether to release someone from jail or hold them on a low bond.

The Spokane County Commission on Jan. 10 unanimously authorized staff to finalize a $400,000 contract with Pioneer Human Services to run a supported release program for approximately a year.

Supported release gives judges the option of releasing nonviolent defendants from jail and connecting them with resources rather than holding them on a low bond. The MacArthur Foundation has given Spokane County more than $400,000 to try supported release in district court as part of its Safety and Justice Challenge, an effort to reduce incarceration and racial inequities.

The idea has long had the support of judges, public defenders and criminal justice reform advocates.

Maggie Yates, the county’s former regional law and justice administrator, presented a supported release proposal to the county commissioners in the fall of 2021. Her efforts to launch the program stalled, however, following resistance from the prosecutor’s office.

Spokane County commissioners said they supported the concept, but declined to move forward with the program on the advice of their attorney, who was appointed by Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell to serve as their legal counsel.

Yates resigned in January 2022 and later ran unsuccessfully for county commissioner as a Democrat against Republican incumbent Al French. She didn’t provide a specific reason for her resignation, but said she felt she could “no longer push the work of (her) office forward.” Her job hasn’t been filled, although the county has since created a senior director of law and justice position that oversees a handful of departments.

In February, The Spokesman-Review reported that the MacArthur Foundation in July 2021 had told the county it might ask for its money back if a supported release program wasn’t created.

Less than a week later, then-Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich asked the commissioners for permission to try to resurrect the effort, which they granted.

The job of restarting the supported release project fell to Mike Sparber, the county’s first senior director of law and justice. It hasn’t been easy, Sparber said.

“I had to re-engage all the stakeholders and get them working towards a common goal,” he said. “We wanted to do it right.”

Spokane County’s first attempt to find a contractor to run the pilot program failed after no one bid on the project. The county received two bids on the second try: one from Pioneer Human Services for $399,337 and the other from Revive Counseling for $1.38 million.

When a district court judge decides to direct someone to supported release, Pioneer Human Services will work to connect them with resources. The organization could help the defendant find housing, addiction treatment, a job, transportation and other types of assistance.

Nanette Sorich, spokeswoman for Pioneer Health Services, said the company did not want to comment on the supported release program until after it has signed the contract.

Laurie Garduque, the MacArthur Foundation’s director of criminal justice, said in an email she’s pleased the county is moving forward with supported release.

“It has the potential to improve lives while making the county safer,” Garduque wrote. “Many other communities have successfully used supported release to safely reduce pretrial detention, provide some assurance that individuals being released will attend hearings, (and) offer voluntary services to address underlying issues that may be related to offending.”

The MacArthur Foundation’s original grant required Spokane County to start a supported release pilot program before the end of 2022, but Sparber said the foundation agreed to give the county an extension.

Sparber said he’s unsure when the pilot program will officially start helping district court defendants, but expects it to run into 2024. If it succeeds and increases the likelihood of people showing up to court, the county could make it a permanent part of the criminal justice system.

Kurtis Robinson, a longtime criminal justice reform advocate who serves as vice president of the Spokane NAACP and executive director of I Did the Time, said he’s thrilled that Pioneer Human Services is running the pilot program.

“The work they do is top-notch,” he said.

While Robinson said he’s glad the pilot program is finally happening, he criticized the Republican county commissioners for not having allowed it to move forward sooner.

“From my perspective, what they do is they resist the process until it looks like it’s going to shine too bad of a light on them,” he said. “They should have done this a long time ago.”

Spokane County commissioners from both parties said they’re eager to see the supported release program up and running.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how many people we’re able to help,” Republican Mary Kuney said.

Commissioners Amber Waldref and Chris Jordan, Democrats who took office this month, said they believe supported release is a commonsense idea.

“It’s really just a best practice,” Waldref said. “Providing services to folks to stay housed, to keep their job, that’s a good thing in the end.”

Jordan, a former attorney who specialized in child abuse cases, said he’s seen firsthand how providing people with addiction and mental health assistance can change lives. Supported release could have communitywide benefits, he said.

“I think it’s a promising approach to try to reduce some of the failures to appear and thus reduce some unnecessary jail stays, which are costly to taxpayers and contribute to overcrowding,” Jordan said.

On the campaign trail last year, French criticized Yates and ran a TV ad that accused her of wanting to give criminals a “get out of jail free card.”

He publicly praised her when she resigned, however, and has repeatedly said he doesn’t think addicts and people struggling with mental illness need to be in jail.

That population needs help, French says, and if supported release can simultaneously help defendants and improve public safety, it’s worth trying.

“If you try something and it fails,” he said in an interview, “that’s not a failure.”