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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

People accused of violent crimes in Spokane County were let out of jail without posting bail 665 times in nearly 3 years

The Spokane County Courthouse and jail are seen in 2019.   (Jesse Tinsley/The Spokesman-Review)

Nathan Nash, the ex-Spokane police officer who raped two women after using his badge to gain their trust, spent years awaiting trial not from the confines of a jail cell, but in his own home. He did not have to post bail.

Jordan Knippling walked out of the Spokane County Jail without a judge setting bail after he was accused of punching a nurse at MultiCare Valley Hospital and throwing medical equipment. A year later, while out of jail on his own recognizance, prosecutors allege he killed a man at a homeless camp.

Daniel Silva is accused of slashing a Fred Meyer co-worker’s face with a handsaw. He was released from jail without bond the same day.

The three men are among hundreds of people accused of violent crimes in Spokane County who have been released from the county jail on their promise to behave and show up to court when summoned. Such scenarios have been the source of outrage and frustration in the past few years by the county sheriff and Spokane’s police chief.

Records obtained by The Spokesman-Review show that people accused of violent crimes such as rape, molesting children, making death threats, assaults and vehicular homicide were set free on their own recognizance. This has happened 665 times in Spokane County from Jan. 1, 2021, to Sept. 30.

“The data is alarming,” County Commissioner Al French said. “We are assessing how to respond.”

Those who support a high threshold for setting bond say setting bond favors people with resources, allowing them to maintain jobs and their lives while awaiting trial while the poor face a loss of their jobs that could permanently set back them and their families despite not being convicted of a crime. Those who criticize current bond standards say they create a revolving door on the jail, putting public and victims at risk.

Washington law says everyone arrested and accused of a crime is presumed innocent and subject to release – but judges have to consider the scope of what’s in the law. That consideration is subjective and up to the discretion of the individual judge.

“The presumption when they hit jail is that they are going to go right back out. That’s where we start from, because that’s what the law says,” Spokane County Superior Court Judge Julie McKay said. “From there, you are looking at an analysis of if you’re going to hold somebody, then you have to be able to hold them saying they are going to fail to come to court or they are at risk of committing a violent offense. Or, they’re at risk of interfering with witnesses, tampering with witnesses or interfering with the administration of justice that we do.

“Then from there, we’re looking at various things. For instance, criminal history, mental health history if it’s available. How old their criminal history is, what the actual facts of the case are, whether it is what would be considered a violent crime.”

The data provided by the county does not include names of offenders, the outcomes of their cases, or demographics such as race, gender, economic status or age of the defendants. The data also only represents the most serious charge leveled against each offender.

Since the start of 2021, there have been 33 times defendants arrested on accusations of rape were released without having to post bail. Among those cases, 19 involved a child. An additional 24 were accused of child molestation. In each case, the defendant was released from jail on their own recognizance.

“Some judges are good at protecting,” French said. “Some are not.”

Among defendants accused of any felony crime in that 33-month period, including nonviolent ones, 2,704 were let out of jail without having to post bail. Of those, 235 were accused of the most serious crimes, class A felonies, which could potentially result in lifetime prison sentences.

Those accused of class B felonies, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, were released 1,361 times without having to post bail. Those arrested on class C felonies, punishable by up to five years in prison, were released 1,108 times without having to post bail.

Sixteen no-bail releases included a domestic violence flag, which signals the victim was likely a spouse or family member.

McKay noted that even people accused of violent crimes and released on their own recognizance can have no-contact orders or travel bans included in their condition of release from jail.

She said she understands the public’s anger and fears regarding crime, and that she and other judges are not going to “cut everybody loose.”

“I’m speaking only in hypotheticals, but you could have a situation where this person is alleged to have committed a rape or an offense against a child, something of that nature, and they have no criminal history. You have no history to show that they won’t come to court. You have no history to show that they’re going to interfere with witnesses, but what you do have is pretty heinous crime,” she said. “So you’re faced with, ‘Now what do I do here?’ And what we’re required to do is say, ‘Do we have other safety factors that we can put in place so that release can still be presumed?’

“It comes from our constitutional belief and theory that everyone is presumed innocent until proven guilty. And that’s a really hard thing to remember when you are the victim of a crime.”

The jail debate

Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl said Spokane is growing, and that can mean more criminal behavior.

“When these judges decide whether someone is released or if they keep them – at some point for every person they keep, someone has to be released. They’re going to try to release the property crime offenders to keep a violent offender in,” Meidl said.

But sometimes, he added, those accused of a crime are released even before the officer can finish writing their police report.

Jail overcrowding in Spokane County has been a long-standing conversation for years. This fall, voters will decide whether to raise their taxes to pay for two new jails and other public safety improvements. Elected officials supporting the new tax tend to be more conservative.

Measure 1 will appear on the November ballot and would raise sales taxes by 0.2% to collect $1.7 billion over the next 30 years. About $405 million would go to the city of Spokane, $188 million to Spokane Valley and $1.1 billion to the county. State law mandates that the money be spent on efforts connected to criminal justice, public safety and behavioral health. But opponents of the measure contend it remains unclear how most of the money would be spent.

McKay said she has heard people blaming judges for releasing violent suspects because the jail is full. But she said a full jail is not the issue.

“That’s not part of the analysis that we do under the court rule that I refer to,” McKay said of her considerations of who is let out on their own recognizance and who is required to post a high bail. “I don’t take the bench and say, ‘Well, I’m gonna let this guy go because the jail is full.’ That’s wholly inappropriate. It is not what anybody does. I have yet to talk to a judicial officer that does make that decision.”

Officials react

Spokane Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Preston McCollam sometimes has to sit down with a victim or a family member who comes into his office and asks, “Why has my attacker been released?”

He has to explain to them what presumed release and bond postings mean. Typically, it is a hard conversation to have, he said.

Crime victims already feel like the system has failed them, McCollam said. The victim had to get the courage to report, to let police question them over and over, maybe even be examined at a hospital for hours. And there’s a sense of helplessness, McCollam said, when he has to look a victim in the eye and tell them he can’t do more for them.

“They have to relive their trauma until the prosecutor and the detective say, ‘We are going to go ahead and file this charge,’ and then you find out, as a victim, that the person is out in the community,” McCollam said.

McCollam said he’s not surprised. In fact, he said he thought the numbers would be higher due to the number of repeat offenders he sees.

“If somebody gets released in the domestic violence realm, often you start seeing an increase in additional repetitive domestic violence offenses,” McCollam said. “I’ve had cases where somebody is arrested and then they get arrested again the next day.”

Guidelines judges in Washington must follow when deciding to set bail are in a rule called Washington Criminal Rule 3.2.

McCollam said prosecutors and defense attorneys have to do their job right, which usually means arguing for a higher or lower bond. Or, no bond at all – but it’s always up to the court.

“The court is trying to apply it to the best of their ability, and then we’re trying to argue it to the best of our ability, and the defense is doing their job and arguing for the presumption of release,” McCollam said. “But part of 3.2 is, at any time, they can go ahead and petition the court to reduce bond. And so that’s another incredibly frustrating conversation for families.”

Spokane County Sheriff John Nowels called the jail release data disappointing, but not surprising.

Nowels pointed to the Washington’s Criminal Rule 3.2 as a reason the numbers seem alarming, because it’s so subjective.

“Nowhere does it tell them they have to consider all of these other things and let those outweigh the severity of the crime. They choose to interpret it a different way, and that’s fine, but they are elected officials. They should be able to stand on their decisions,” Nowels said. “They have to be accountable. They are elected officials.”

Nowels said he’s most concerned about the victims – not ones who had their iPads stolen out of their cars, or those who had their bike damaged – but people who have been viciously attacked, traumatized and injured.

“Who’s going to stop them from coming back?” Nowels asked. “What about the fear of that victim? What about the family of the girl who was killed by a drunk driver?”

French echoed the same sentiment.

“I look at these numbers and worry about the victims,” he said. “Thirty-three victims of rape in our community that had to experience this. That is disturbing.”

French said he’s seen people be released and come back over and over. At one time, there was a thought that releases were due to jail overcrowding.

“… But (judges) have said we don’t make decisions on jail,” French said. “So the only conclusion left – just bad judicial judgment.”

Meidl said there should be an incentive for people to change.

“We have noticed this trend for years. It’s concerning for us,” he said. “When we see folks we know will victimize someone else again, we feel like it’s not a deterrent to them. It doesn’t discourage that behavior in the future if they’re released.”

A bigger picture

After hearing about the jail-release data, City Council President Lori Kinnear noted, “It’s not just a Spokane problem.”

She said when judges make a ruling, they’re following the guidelines the state sets.

“They’re not pulling stuff out of thin air,” she said.

Kinnear made it clear she doesn’t agree with more than 600 people accused of violent crimes being released on their own recognizance.

The first step she would advocate for is separating the populations being held in jail and treating alleged offenders based on what they’re accused of. For example, someone in their own home smoking methamphetamine is a lot different than someone who attempted to strangle their spouse.

If Spokane County builds two new jails, Kinnear said, there must be a treatment center. There has to be a diversion program. There have to be solutions after someone is behind bars.

“People who stay in jail probably don’t make bail. They will be typically lower income, a minority, homeless. … They’re forced to stay there. There’s already an inequity. … We need a better look at the state system,” she said.

Inequities are something Kurtis Robinson said he knows well. He is the Spokane NAACP president and the executive director for Revive Center for Returning Citizens and I Did The Time. He said the numbers just prove the system is failing.

“We need the full spectrum of the data,” Robinson said, insisting that race and class play a big part who is let out and who is forced to first post bail first.

If there was a larger conversation to start with, Spokane could look to improve, he said, but there has to be transparency about people going into jail, and people coming out of it.

Robinson said he thinks the system is already too harsh. He also said he believes prosecutors tend to “stack” charges to force people into a corner.

“It’s always situational, but we have a tendency as a system to overcharge people. That’s not an excuse for behavior, but it points to us having a serious conversation,” he said. “The longer answer is, our society as a whole has a lot of issues. This is representative of the issues happening in our system and communities. … The desire is to build a bigger jail rather than pour resources into the community and give people alternatives.”

The Bail Project, a New York-based nonprofit that does work in Spokane, says that when someone is held in jail or cannot afford bail, “terrible things happen.”

The organization has argued that a night in jail can cause someone to lose their job, their home and custody of their children. The project says 90% of their clients attend future court dates, and most of them are not convicted of a crime.

“Between 20 and 70% of our clients have their cases ultimately dismissed, depending on the jurisdiction,” The Bail Project states on its website.

Spokane County Commissioner Chris Jordan said there has to be a larger discussion about “getting the right people in jail.”

He said he is concerned about the streets being safe, but solutions require focus on pretrial decisions and giving judges more tools to help with release conditions. Jordan cited better electronic monitoring and supervision if someone is released before trial. But he doesn’t believe the issue is about jail capacity.

“I have held people accountable who harm children, and community safety is a top priority for me. We all want to see the right people in jail, so of course I’m concerned about our streets being safe,” said Jordan, who previously worked as a lawyer with the Washington state Attorney General’s Office and specialized in child abuse cases. “Crime reduction and prevention is within our control.”

Meidl said if the community wants to limit the number of people accused of violent felonies released from jail without posting bail, the solution may be to revisit state law, specifically regarding Rule 3.2 that judges use as a guide for presumption of release.

He calls it “the bigger picture.”

“We have to focus on people that have no intention of changing their behavior,” Meidl said.

“When you’re looking at the rules with what a judge considers, are they likely to show up again and pose a threat to the community?” he asked. “If you’re looking at who they’re releasing, some of them have criminal history. They need to give more weight to their prior history, even if it’s not related to the current charge.”

McCollam said either way, his way of explaining to families and victims why their alleged attacker didn’t have to post bond will likely continue.

Sometimes he agrees with the judge, but sometimes he doesn’t.

Parts of the system could be better, he said, but until then, “We all just keep doing our best.”