Thursday, June 11, 2015

Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council is taking applications and brainstorms jail issues

Posted By on Thu, Jun 11, 2015 at 10:01 AM

The Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council is looking to add two at-large community members to its panel of 20 major criminal justice players. 

This is the group responsible for the Blueprint for Reform and includes a hodgepodge of individuals representing law enforcement, the Spokane County Jail, the Public Defenders Office, the County Prosecutors Office, City Council, Superior, District and Municipal courts and the County Clerk's office. 

"It's critical to have community involvement on the council," says Jackie van Wormer, acting administrator of the group. "We're looking for individuals who've been impacted by the criminal just system."

Van Wormer says the two new positions are also intended to increase the diversity of the 19-person panel, which is all white, though most of the current council members are statutorily required to participate.  

The application process is open until July 10, and the Law and Justice Council hopes to appoint the two new members by September. The Council is looking for applicants who have experience with the criminal justice system in Spokane, have no pending criminal cases, and live in Spokane County. They also have to be able to meet the second Wednesday of every month from noon to 1:30. 

This month's meeting was the first time the Law and Justice Council has met since finding out Spokane was selected to participate in the Safety and Justice Challenge, a contest initiated by the MacArthur Foundation that could bring in up to $2 million a year for two years to support efforts to reduce the jail population. 

Representatives from the Vera Institute of Justice, a criminal justice reform agency that will help the council prepare for the contest, explained the next steps in the process, which includes collecting data from each of the the stations in the criminal justice pipeline. That data will allow the council to evaluate decision-making surrounding arrests, charges, assignment of counsel, pretrial release, case processing, sentencing and post-conviction supervision. 

"We'll be looking at who makes the decisions at each point and how they're made," says Liz Swavola of the Vera Institute. "Where are people coming into the system? Where are they staying longer than they should?" 

With the Vera Institute's help, members of the Law and Justice Council will prepare an application to receive up to $2 million a year for two years to implement the ideas they come up with in the next several months. 

At the end of the meeting, council members and other interested community members in attendance brainstormed some contributing factors of high jail admission and unnecessarily lengthy stays. Here's some of the issues they came up with: 
  • People who don't show up for municipal court appearances get warrants put out for their arrests as a result. Many times the original charge wouldn't have warranted jail time. 
  • There aren't many alternatives to jail for those with mental health issues.
  • Delays in attorneys having access to clients because the police report isn't available quickly (though the County Prosecutors Office is working on an electronic discovery system)
  • Racial disproportionality in contact by police officers.
  • Implicit bias throughout the criminal justice system.
  • Mandatory minimum sentences.
  • If a person has cases in multiple jurisdictions (superior, district or municipal) it can take longer to appear in front of a judge, thus extending the stay in jail.
  • Arbitrarily high bond amounts. 
These issues, and more are the ones the Law and Justice Council will tackle in the coming months. Stay tuned. 

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About The Author

Mitch Ryals

Mitch covers cops, crime and courts for the Inlander. He moved to Spokane in 2015 from his hometown of St. Louis, and is a graduate of the University of Missouri. He likes bikes, beer and baseball. And coffee. He dislikes lemon candy, close-mindedness and liars. And temperatures below 40 degrees.