Percy Watkins saw his friends get hooked on crack. Not casual friends, either. “My best friend, my brother, and his best friend.”
Watkins grew up in the Nevada-Lidgerwood neighborhood, in northeast Spokane. In the 1980s there was a saying among Spokane police officers who came up in that area. “‘Everybody from Rogers [High School] is either cops or robbers,’” Watkins recalls. People joked about it.
But it felt like the truth for Watkins. He’d seen the way thieves and drug dealers infected his community. Watkins knew he wasn’t a robber. So, in 1987, he became a cop.
He went after criminals hard. He pulled a lot of gang duty.
Made drug buys. Raided houses. He did everything he could to get bad people off the streets. People Watkins grew up with ended up in the system frequently.
“I learned people really do the horrible things they’re accused of,” Watkins says. As a result of this education, he says, “I became a more aggressive cop.”
Eventually, though, when he’d raid a drug house, he began to see past the dealers and their stashes. More and more, he saw the kids.
Later, when he became a community resource officer, Watkins wanted to try and reach those children. He got a grant and started Cops & Kids, a mentoring program that hooked up troubled youth with role-model officers.
That’s when he realized that crime moves on multiple planes.
Street cop Percy had seen the way it spreads outward from drug houses and street corners into homes and across neighborhoods.
Working with kids, though, he saw for the first time how it infects families, too. “These kids I was working with at night,” he says, “I hunted their brothers, arrested their fathers” during the day.
Watkins will never forget the kid who broke into his neighbor’s house, stole the stereo, then wrapped it as a gift for himself and put it under the Christmas tree. The kid’s home life was a wreck, Watkins says. “It’s not his fault his mom didn’t know how to love him.”
Moments like that changed Watkins. “I got tired of seeing the waste of humanity,” he says. “I started to see the price we pay when we don’t love. And especially when we hate.”
Being a cop and tossing people in jail wasn’t enough. Watkins shakes his head, “It isn’t enough.”
In 2008, Spokane County and the Sheriff’s Office agreed with Watkins: Jail isn’t enough.
As part of a 2008 survey into corrections services, a consultant hired by the county, David Bennett, examined our justice system. There was talk of building a new jail, and Bennett’s job was to look at all the steps that lead to and from jail — from what happens to offenders pre-trial to what services are available when they go home — so that the county could restructure services, add programs and accurately gauge how big of a jail to build.
Bennett found that the county had some good things going, namely a drug court and a mental health court designed to direct offenders to treatment. But for every good program he cataloged, Bennett found two programs that were either lacking or nonexistent. In all, he suggested 14 serious overhauls, including reforms that would make the court system faster and fairer. Far more people were in jail than needed to be, waiting to be charged or to stand trial. Once charged and released, people were often failing to appear in court and getting hauled back to jail because of it, which cost the county money and kept petty criminals in beds better suited for the violent, Bennett found.
Once convicted, Bennett said, judges were over-relying on jail as a sentence, rather than ordering offenders to treatment programs, which, ideally, would keep them from committing more crimes.
In the four years since, much of what Bennett suggested has been implemented at some level. The Superior Court has a system for dealing with certain felonies as quickly as possible, and officials at Geiger Corrections Center have been doggedly turning the facility from an overflow warehouse for the county jail into a place where offenders can receive treatment and training.
“Let’s say someone is committing burglaries. If we curb that drug addiction problem, we can maybe break the cycle of burglary,” Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich says. “Getting them off the street is only half the battle.”
It seems to be working. Capt. John McGrath, detention services commander for the Sheriff’s Office, says the average nightly headcount between the two jail facilities — Geiger, on the West Plains, and the county jail, in downtown Spokane — peaked the year of the Bennett’s report at 1,200. Now it’s hovering “at about 850.”
It’s hard to peg that exactly to the new programs, McGrath says, but the average length of stay at the jail used to be 18 to 22 days. Now it’s 11 to 12. “Every time you drop the length of stay, the population drops,” McGrath says.
But this hasn’t produced much in terms of savings, because jails have fixed costs like electricity and building maintenance. As a result, when the facilities are emptier, it costs the county more per inmate than when the jails are full, says County Commissioner Todd Mielke.
Meanwhile, the City of Spokane, which contracts with the county to house its inmates, has been looking at ways of reducing its costs, including shipping inmates south to Benton County facilities. There they have excess beds and are offering them to the city at less than half of what Spokane County charges.
The city has put off a decision while Spokane County figures out the future of Geiger, but Mielke says, “They’ve said they’d like to see savings by 2013.” The county leases the facility from the Spokane Airport, which has indicated it would like to take back the property. The loss of Geiger would leave the downtown jail struggling to accommodate all the inmates.
This has prompted the Spokane County Board of Commissioners to call for a hard look at the finances. The commissioners have also asked Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich to figure out how many inmates we could safely put back on the streets, either in programs or tethered to ankle bracelets.
“We’re looking at everything right now,” McGrath says. Meanwhile, a coalition has emerged of progressive activists, lawyers, mental health professionals, drug professionals and community leaders organizing themselves under the moniker “Smart Justice.” They have been meeting privately for months and are now beginning to speak publicly for the first time.
They say we don’t need more jails. We may not even need the ones we have.
We Need to Ask Different Questions
It's a Sunday in mid-May, and Breean Beggs is in his backyard.
He and his family have been “speed-weeding,” trying to get a bad chore done as quickly as possible.
A partner at the Paukert & Troppmann law firm, Beggs has just settled the civil case brought by the family of Otto Zehm, a mentally ill janitor who died in 2006 after being beaten, tasered and hogtied by Spokane police. The settlement, obtained with co-counsel Jeffry Finer, is widely credited with bringing resolution, if not closure, after a hard, six-year fight with the city.
The settlement has also proven that Beggs knows how to play the long game, and that’s good, because there’s no way to play his next game short.
Beggs, along with a group called Greater Spokane Progress, has begun building a coalition of people from all realms of treatment and criminal justice to work to expand the systems and services created under Bennett’s plan and, as much as possible, take these services out of the jail and into the community.
In his backyard, Beggs has stopped weeding. He takes a seat under the canopy of a tree and begins to talk about fruit. There’s low-hanging fruit and medium-hanging fruit and the higher stuff, he says — an entire tree of options available for how to deal with people who commit crimes.
“If we want to get this under control,” he says, “we need to do the low-hanging stuff right now.” That means getting everyone through the system as quickly as possible, and letting everyone out of jail who can safely be let out.
If we do this well enough, Beggs believes, we won’t need a new jail at all. We might not even need Geiger. We could move the services Geiger offers downtown (McGrath says the county is already looking into this) and closer to the people who need them.
The county and the Sheriff’s Office have been implementing some of these, but not all, and they’ve had to keep them smaller than they might because of budgeting, Bennett, the consultant, says. While the existing programs aren’t currently turning people away, Bennett believes that, with proper funding, the programs could be much larger than they are now.
Beggs thinks we’re going to have to do this whether we have funding or not.
Spokane’s interest in using the Benton County jail underscores how expensive our jails are and how we need to reexamine the fixed costs in our jail system, Beggs says.
County and jail officials don’t think it’s that easy.
McGrath says the reason the Sheriff’s Office got rid of their in-home monitoring program a few years ago was because of budget issues and security issues. It cost too much, and McGrath says they felt exposed to liability having too many offenders running around.
Commissioner Mielke is a backer of the county’s efforts thus far to expand services, but he worries about going too far and making victims of crimes feel less safe.
“I understand the argument that asks, ‘If someone is nonviolent, should they really be in jail?’” Mielke says. “But when a victim of a home burglary finds out the suspect has been arrested 40 times, they say, ‘The system is not working.’”
Mielke acknowledges that the whole point of these programs is to get people to stop robbing well before they’ve been caught 40 times. Beggs says Mielke’s reaction isn’t an uncommon one, though, and believes it’s representative of the old thinking that the Bennett report has urged local leaders to reconsider.
Beggs says it’s not productive to obsess over whether or not offenders are going to offend again.
“Offenders are going to reoffend,” Beggs says. “Statistically, they just are — people reoffend in jail.”
If keeping an offender in jail costs $120 a day (Mielke’s approximation) and keeping him on electronic home monitoring — one option open to the county — costs about $10 per day (using numbers from Spokane police), the choice is clear for Beggs. “The only question is how long we can stretch out those periods of recidivism.”
Some programs have also been shown to work better when the offender is outside in the community, rather than in custody. A 2006 report by the Washington Institute for Public Policy, a nonpartisan think tank, found that recidivism rates for offenders with drug problems dropped 12 percent when treated in the community, compared with only 6 percent when treated in jail.
Louise Chadez, a mental-health and substance-abuse counselor at Spokane Addiction Recovery Center, says it just aids the therapy when an addict leaves a session and goes back to their home.
“If you are back with whatever family you have left,” she says, “they’re going to help you be accountable. The kid you haven’t supported for years, the spouse that’ll take you back if you promise to complete treatment — you’re much more likely to follow through.”
She adds that mentally ill clients report not being able to get their pills in the county jail. For some it’s a bigger deal than others.
“A lot of my clients are on benzodiazepines — Ativan — highly addictive stuff,” she says. Stuff that high-dose users will crave between doses, and that can cause crippling withdrawal. “You can almost never get benzos [in jail],” she says.
McGrath says that up to 80 percent of the offenders in the system have some sort of “broad-spectrum” mental condition. He recognizes the problem.
“We don’t have a huge staff,” he says. “We spend a lot of time and energy addressing [offenders’] needs, but we’re not set up to be a psychiatric ward.”
McGrath says that, at any given time, about 6 percent of the county jail’s population — a relatively high amount — is in for failing to pay legal financial obligations like court fines.
“That’s 40, 50 jail beds we don’t need,” Beggs says.
“It’s like debtors prison.”
It just wastes tax dollars to keep them locked away, Beggs believes, especially since we could actually be making money off them. If we were to let those people out and keep tabs on them while giving them a plan to pay their debt, “maybe 25 dollars a month,” he says, “the county is making 300 bucks a year instead of paying $120 a night.”
To Smart Justice advocates, we need to change the questions we use when assessing people. Rather than asking, “Will this person ever reoffend in their lifetime?” we should ask, “Is this person physically dangerous? Is this person going to hurt someone in the next six months?” Using that metric quickly shrinks your population. Only 50 percent of the people currently incarcerated in the jail system are violent offenders, according to McGrath.
The downtown jail was built for 462 inmates and was expanded in the ’90s to house 675. McGrath doesn’t like it that high, though. “We like to keep it at 600,” he says.
Using current averages, if the county was able to get all non-violent offenders out of jail and into programs (or ankle bracelets, if necessary), we’d have about 425 people a night in our jails — well below McGrath’s desired threshold.
“With a few exceptions, if they aren’t violent,” Beggs believes, “they shouldn’t be in jail.”
We Need to Structure Things Differently
Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno wants to see fewer people in custody, too. She doesn’t like how slowly the system moves people through. It’s wasteful to her, and destructive. She’s seen felony cases take two years to conclude. That’s not an unrealistic length for a murder case, but she’s seen it happen with a simple possession of marijuana.
“Some folks have totally changed their lives” in two years, Moreno says. When they finally come to trial, “you uproot them again and it’s a devastating cycle.”
The system is built to solve problems, Moreno says — it should not create them. Bennett’s 2008 report, though, found huge problems caused by how slowly everything happened. People were arrested but not charged within the 72-hour window, so they had to be released without knowing when they had to show back up to court, so they’d miss their appearance, which would get them thrown in jail, so they’d lose their job and get uprooted from their family for something that amounts to a clerical logjam.
“Swift justice takes care of all of these problems,” Moreno says.
This is what “swift justice” looks like to Moreno: For a first-time offender, you bring them in front of the court, “and you do it quickly,” the judge says.
What you do not do, she adds, “is excessive incarceration. Intensive supervision. Too much treatment. You don’t know the needs yet.
“If you place a low-risk individual on supervision, they get into more trouble in the waiting room of the probation office than they would on the street,” Moreno says.
The process — called “early case resolution” — began with drug arrests at Superior Court and now includes all class C felonies. Salt Lake City and California’s Sonoma County are the holy grail of this system, Moreno says, where all cases — big and small — run through a similar process.
Smart Justice advocates would like to see the holy grail here, too. Moreno is in favor of expanding the process, as well — provided there’s funding and enough good lawyers to rapidly run through cases.
“It’s a resource issue,” she says. “We’ve found that you need really high-level lawyers who know how to size up a case” on both the prosecution and the defense sides to get the results.
To speed up the intake side, Bennett’s report advocated for a “full-service pre-trial services program,” a single location where all inmates are booked and interviewed and sped on their way to court appearances. He built a system similar to this in the late 1970s in Salt Lake City. It alone reduced that city’s jail population by one-third. That hasn’t happened here yet, but Moreno says the court has worked hard with law enforcement to streamline logistics “from soup to nuts, looking at everything.”
There’s a potential step even before pretrial that, Beggs says, could resolve certain arrests before they become actual court cases. In October 2011, Seattle implemented its Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), which gives police themselves discretion to take low-level drug offenders — users, petty dealers — to treatment programs rather than jail. “[The offenders] could choose jail if they want,”Beggs says, “but they wouldn’t.”
The program is new and its efficacy hasn’t been proven, but Beggs says it’s a logical cost-cutting step. The offenders are still getting into treatment; they just aren’t wasting court resources to get there. The nickname for early case resolution is “same justice, sooner.” A program like LEAD in Spokane, Beggs says, would be closer to “same justice, almost immediately.”
The promise, or at least the potential, of these lofty theories can already be seen at Geiger. The transition into a community corrections center is visible as vacant buildings are being transformed into classrooms.
There’s a garden, a stand of trees sits just beyond the main fence. The produce is donated to local charities.
Sheriff’s Sgt. Jon Simbler has a stand of saplings he’s been itching to plant, to help teach the offenders how to care for trees. “Because, let’s face it,” he says, “a lot of these people are going to look for work when they get out, and what they’re going to be able to get is landscaping.” The saplings have sat, watered but untouched, since the staff heard about the proposal to send inmates to Benton County.
That uncertainty is being felt in other programs, too. Geiger has been graduating close to 250 people a year from Breaking Barriers, an anger-management course that focuses on decision-making and has its roots in cognitive therapy. The Institute for Public Policy says programs like this that employ cognitive therapy to change behavior, are among the least expensive options for offenders. Vocational training is also incredibly costeffective, as is any kind of schooling.
The amazing thing about Breaking Barriers, says Becca Butterfield, the teacher of the class, is that “the ones that get out, they’ll come back to Geiger for graduations.”
Butterfield says five to 10 people are earning their GEDs every month. Before the talk of shuttering Geiger, she says, they were looking for ways to increase that to 10-15. Now those plans are on hold.
If Geiger closes, Commissioner Mielke says he’s confident they’ll be able to “absorb a fair amount of staff” into the downtown jail, but he’s looking at a net reduction of 26 slots. They’re looking at ways to cushion the blow by, among other things, offering early retirements.
McGrath says the services Geiger offers will continue to exist no matter what happens to Geiger itself.
The downtown location would have upsides. Lt. Joanne Lake, Geiger’s assistant commander, would like to host day reporting for offenders to come in, check in, take classes, or do work. But it’s kind of hard to get out there if you don’t have your own car, which many offenders don’t. Lake says there used to be a bus stop right outside, but STA restructured and moved it down the road. These are small obstacles that can be overcome.
The obstacles Lake and her staff fear most come from closing Geiger before there’s a suitable alternative in place that allows the community partnerships they’ve built here to transition smoothly.
“These are partnerships that were very hard to create,” Lake says, and Sgt. Simbler nods. “Things like that are hard to build and easy to destroy.”
We Need to Think in Terms of Savings, Not Costs
When Captain McGrath talks about the programs that are either successful or that have been cut, he talks about them in terms of cost. When the Sheriff’s Office decided to discontinue its electronic home-monitoring program, McGrath says it was because of the cost. It was important to the agency that they have comprehensive 24-hour monitoring, he says. But at the time the program was cut, “we had about 100 people on EHM and seven people monitoring them,” he says. “It got very expensive because of the way we were doing it.”
Contrast this with Donna McBride’s approach.
When the City of Spokane’s chief probation officer talks about how happy she is with the department’s in-home monitoring system, she describes it in terms of savings.
Even given staffing costs and the cost of the equipment to monitor 60 inmates a day, McBride says, “we’re averting almost $2 million a year” in costs.
And McBride thinks the program has room to grow.
“Absolutely more could be done on it,” she says.
There are differences in the two programs — McBride only has two people monitoring offenders — but the big difference is, again, that the city doesn’t have a jail to worry about. The Sheriff’s Office has a statutory obligation to make sure there’s a jail in town, but there’s no such obligation to make sure we have programs, services or incarceration alternatives.
But if the Sheriff’s Office could use things like electronic home monitoring and other alternatives to scale back their jail operations — “close a floor of the downtown jail, for example,” Beggs says — then that could translate into an actual net savings.
That’s one reason why Beggs views Geiger’s potential closure as an opportunity to take the money saved from the lease payment and the 26 lost positions to vastly scale up services and re-implement incarceration alternatives like home monitoring.
McGrath, for his part, doesn’t think there would be huge gains there. To reproduce Geiger’s functions downtown, they’ll have to lease space near the courthouse, for example.
There’s another option, though, to get services and incarceration alternatives out from underneath the shadow of the jail budget.
The state Legislature allows cities to enact up to a two-tenths-of-one-percent tax for law enforcement. The county already uses a different statute that takes one-tenth-of-one-percent for mental health services. Even in a down economy, that onetenth accounted for well over $7 million in revenue in the past year.
Commissioner Mielke says they are looking at all possibilities, and he doesn’t rule out some sort of ballot measure asking for money, either for the entire three-point jail package — a new jail, a renovated downtown jail, and a new community corrections center — or for something smaller.
McGrath hasn’t vetted these numbers, but he thinks renovating the downtown jail and creating a community corrections center would cost between $60 million and $80 million.
If Beggs had his way, the county commissioners would put the $200 million jail plan and the one-tenth-ofone-percent
tax for programming on the ballot next to each other.
“So we could ask people, ‘New jail or better services?’” Beggs says, “and let people choose the community they want to have.”
We Need to Go All In
David Bennett has been doing this work for almost 40 years. He started as a probation officer before becoming director of pre-trial services in Salt Lake County, Utah.
Lately, he’s been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen.
On his trips to various county jails across America, the new album Wrecking Ball always finds its way into his headphones. One song has stuck with him: “We Take Care of Our Own.” He keeps thinking about it. “Listen to that song, man,” he says.
Musically, it’s classic Boss — chugging rhythm, smooth guitar, jangly keys. It has a familiar topic too. The song begins star-spangled, almost dripping with love for the American idea. As it goes on, though, Springsteen begins to weave in the ways we have failed that idea by failing each other.
The words “we take care of our own” are repeated 15 times in the four-minute song, and each time they get weighed down with a little more irony. A little more bitterness.
“The point,” Bennett says, “is that, ‘No, we don’t take care of our own.’” He believes Spokane has spent the last four years doing its best to turn that around. “Given budgetary constraints,” he says, “I really feel like we’re heading in the right direction.”
He worries now that fiscal panic has us contemplating tearing down what we’ve built.
Sheriff Knezovich worries about that, too.
“It comes down to community leaders deciding that, ‘Yes, we have a problem,’” he says. “It’s sexy to deal with the immediate problem, but the longrange root of the problem is not being dealt with.”
Those looking from outside the system, though — Breean Beggs, Louise Chadez, the other Smart Justice advocates — see this as an opportunity to take what has begun in the jail and break it out, spread it around the community at large. Keep the jail as a piece of a web of programs and services spread throughout the community.
Percy Watkins, the cop turned youth mentor, sees it as an opportunity to go further still.
The jail discussion centers on what we do to help people who are already offenders. Since leaving the police force in 1997, he’s focused on taking high-risk kids out of dangerous surroundings and teaching them life skills. Even a fraction of that one-tenth-of-one-percent tax would pay to get a lot more kids off a lot more streets.
Teen programs, childhood intervention and prevention are what Beggs calls “the highest-hanging fruit.” The stuff that’s toughest to reach and the most difficult to quantify in a report.
There hasn’t been a lot of talk about these sorts of programs yet among Smart Justice advocates. Beggs thinks we need to do the easier stuff first, and use the savings we get there to roll into these harder, longer-term projects.
But Watkins doesn’t think it can wait.
The sorts of prevention programs Watkins runs need what he calls “wrap-around services.” They don’t only have to be there when the kid needs them. They have to foresee when the kid might potentially need them.
These programs require a lot of man hours and can be expensive, but that’s where Watkins, a minister like his father, Happy Watkins, sees a place for faith-based and other nonprofit, volunteer-heavy programs. The summer program he runs reaches 150 kids — “You’re talking inner-city kids with extreme risk factors” — 30 to 40 nights a summer on a budget of around $10,000.
There is research to support the effectiveness of these types of programs. Steve Aos is the director of the Washington Institute for Public Policy, and in the group’s 2006 recidivism report he tried to identify what impact social services — from preschool to job training — might have on crime. Aos says one of the most effective services the report looked at was a pre-natal program that sends nurses into homes to help expecting mothers learn how to behave like mothers.
Aos’ research helps extend the idea of the web of services that Bennett has helped the county weave around the jail.
And the truth is, Aos says, the models show that jail is still a really good idea for some people.
“It’s all about a portfolio,” he says, “What mix of crime fighting works best and is most effective?” We will always need jails. The question is:
How big do they need to be? How locked down? The prevailing wisdom from all corners — prison consultants, victim’s advocates, the Sheriff’s Office — is that they can house fewer people and be leaner and cheaper so long as they are part of a web of services that helps people who want help and holds people accountable for their actions.
“I always ask myself,” Percy Watkins says, “are we smart enough to ask the right questions, are we strong enough to do the work, and, most importantly, do we have the heart for it?”
Now is when we find out.