Spokane Sheriff blames property crime uptick on pandemic-related inmate releases, but other criminal justice players are skeptical

click to enlarge Spokane Sheriff blames property crime uptick on pandemic-related inmate releases, but other criminal justice players are skeptical
Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich
Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich is blaming a reported uptick in property crimes on local courts' efforts to release dozens of inmates in an attempt to guard against a potential COVID-19 outbreak inside the jail. He's also establishing a "property crimes task force" to crack down on the spike.

"Because of COVID, the courts have released a lot of people that should be in jail, and you cannot continue to not hold people accountable and not expect crime rates to be affected," Knezovich said at a press conference on Tuesday. "My citizens are being victimized by people they shouldn’t be victimized by. These were people that should be in jail, but we continually allow them out."

"We’re going to go after our hardcore career criminals," he adds. "We know who they are, and we intend on putting them back in jail."

But some players in the criminal justice system are skeptical that the connection between the pandemic-related inmate releases and the crime spike is as black and white as Knezovich claims.

"I’m not sure if they’ve done an actual statistical analysis of this," says Spokane County District Court Presiding Judge Jeffrey Smith. "I suspect that it might be more anecdotal than a statistical analysis."

In late March, as the state was rapidly escalating social distancing measures in the face of a mounting COVID-19 outbreak, judges in Spokane Municipal Court, Spokane County District Court and Spokane County Superior Court started releasing inmates they deemed to be low-risk to ease overcrowding inside the county's jail facilities. The result was that the county's inmate population, which historically hovered around 900 people in recent months, has plummeted to around 600.

"We have a jail that is awfully crowded. So it's tough decisions in a crazy time to decide priorities about who we really need in there and who we do not," Spokane Municipal Court Presiding Judge Matthew Antush told the Inlander back in March. "I don't want to potentially subject somebody to the COVID-19 virus for driving with a suspended license."

As evidence that the pandemic-related releases are causing a crime bump, Knezovich points to weekly stats compiled by his office — in this case, a report showing crime data from Jan. 1 through April 25 — showing some property crimes surging considerably over the same time frame last year. Robberies are up 68 percent, residential burglaries increased by 42 percent and commercial burglaries spiked by 162 percent. (Notably, local courts didn't start releasing inmates until late March, while the stats that the sheriff referenced at the Tuesday news conference include data from January and February.) Similarly, garage burglaries and commercial burglaries jumped 119 percent and 59 percent respectively between March 1 and April 25 from the previous 56 day period.

"After the releases due to COVID, we’ve seen triple-digit crime increases and double-digit increases in crime," Knezovich says. "This is unacceptable."

We are creating more victims because we refuse to hold people accountable," he adds.

TTo the sheriff, the spike in property crime is clearly connected to the inmate releases. When asked by a reporter at Tuesday's press conference how he knows that the people who were released as part of the COVID-19 response are the ones committing the crimes, Knezovich said that they are familiar with repeat offenders.

We have the names," Knezovich says. "We can give you names, we can show the arrest dates, we can show you the release dates, and we can show you when we re-arrested them."

But Cpl. Mark Gregory, a spokesman for the Spokane County Sheriff's Office, tells the Inlander that the sheriff was referring to agency's familiarity with chronic repeat offenders, rather than a list of people who were released from custody as part of the pandemic response and are now regularly committing crimes.

e know who continually goes in and out of the jail and we can sit and watch our crime stats move depending upon that," Gregory says. "The sheriff was referring to our history of being able to watch who gets released on their own recognizance."

For some skeptics of the sheriff's claims, empirical evidence directly linking inmates released due to COVID-19 and the property crimes spike is necessary before blaming the releases as the reason behind the surge.

"You have to look at the very specific time frame when our community has been on lockdown and compare numbers and then look at people who were actually released during that period, did they re-offend," Judge Smith says. "In my mind, that gives a more statistically accurate picture of whether or not releasing defendants from jail during that period has resulted in an actual spike in property crimes."

"I think that’s where it’s a anecdotal response, where you’re looking at this thing and saying 'Yeah, we’re seeing a spike, we’re seeing familiar faces, there’s a correlation between the two,'" he adds. "My hunch is that it’s the officers on the streets seeing these repeat offenders, more than it is COVID and the court releasing folks out of jail."

"What you would have to see is who is committing this uptick in crimes and were they released from jail during that time period because of the COVID measures at the jail," says Breean Beggs, Spokane City Council president and longtime criminal justice reform advocate. "But if you can’t match the crime to a person who was released who otherwise wouldn’t have been released, then you can’t draw that conclusion."

Spokane Superior Court Presiding Judge Harold Clarke declined to comment on the issue.

The Spokane Police Department has logged somewhat similar yet smaller increases in some property crimes. Their weekly crime stat reports show that burglaries, primarily commercial burglaries, have been increasing over the course of April.

"If you look at the data that we have now, commercial burglaries have been on a steady rise throughout the stay-at-home order," says SPD spokesman Sgt. Terry Preuninger. (SPD has stepped up patrols focused on property crime during the lock-down.) "We did assume over a month ago that one of the different places that you’d see an increase would be commercial burglary."

But SPD staff are less bullish on the notion that the inmate releases are contributing to spikes in crime.

"We try not to look at it like tea leaves," Preuninger says, referring to weekly crime stats. "The numbers, they’re a tool. It’s not like we don’t put stock into them, they’re accurate, they’re just limited in what they tell us."

In fact, the only thing the department feels comfortable potentially attributing to inmate releases is a one-week spike in vehicle theft between April 19-25, Preuninger says.

"The only thing we can attribute that to is that we’ve released a bunch of people that get arrested for vehicle theft," he says.

Others have a variety of theories why crime may be spiking, including shuttered businesses being particularly vulnerable to burglary, eye-popping unemployment in the rapidly imploding economy, and social support services that historically relied on face-to-face contact, like Alcoholics Anonymous, getting upended.

"There’s a lot of opportunity out there, a lot of businesses that are closed, a lot of people that are not working, a lot of folks, certainly not just folks that we let out, but folks that were not active in criminal behavior before that were struggling anyway," Judge Antush says. "I know that sobriety has been extremely difficult for a lot of the folks that we have on probation because a lot of the resources that they had are not there. They can’t go to AA, not everyone has the ability to figure out how Zoom works or attend these meetings."

"I’m hearing about a lot of folks who had sobriety for months and now they’ve slipped," he adds.

"It’s not surprising that there’s an increase in crime during an economic crisis, especially with so many businesses shuttered that make them perceived as easy targets," Beggs says.

The sheriff also used the property crime uptick to make his long-standing case that the region needs a new jail facility to ease inmate overcrowding and prevent mass releases in the first place.

"If we had had the proper facilities, we would have been able to do proper spacing and proper distancing," Knezovich says. "But when you run a overcrowded jail since 1995, this was bound to happen."

Beggs counters that the inmate releases should have been coupled with a ramp-up of pretrial supervision services — especially when considering the destabilizing social and economic effects of the pandemic that have left so many unemployed and isolated.

"We’re in the worst crisis since the Great Depression," Beggs says. "There’s going to be break down because of that regardless of how many jail beds you have."