Spokane Journal of Business

Using justice reform to enhance economy


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If Spokane County is to enjoy strong economic growth in the years to come, one of the key steps it can take to fortify that effort—and to elevate the area’s image among companies considering locating here—is being aggressive about addressing crime and criminal justice issues.

That’s why it was encouraging to hear last week that the county has been awarded a $1.75 million grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to implement reforms to reduce its surging jail population and to address racial and ethnic disparities in the local justice system.

The county was one of 11 fortunate jurisdictions across the country chosen to receive significant funding as well as access to expert technical assistance to implement a plan for reform over the next two years. In total, the Foundation says, nearly $25 million was awarded to support ambitious plans to create fairer, more effective local justice systems.

Spokane County has seen the average daily population at its jail rise significantly since 2000, with the facility regularly operating at “critical status,” which is a major concern. It had an average daily population of 965 last year, including a disproportionate number of people of color and people with acute mental health problems, the county says. Operating the jail now consumes more than a quarter of the county’s budget, which is unacceptable.

With the sizable award, the county says, it will implement reforms meant to address the main drivers of that jail population, including incarcerating people for nonviolent offenses or simply because they are too poor to post bail. The long-term vision, it says, is to create a local justice system—starting at the point of arrest and continuing all the way through community supervision—that places a greater focus on risk and needs, rather than the offense.

Its efforts will include an increased focus on risk assessment, new prosecutor diversion alternatives, improved jail-based mental health intervention, and measures to reduce racial and ethnic disparities.

The goal is to reduce the average daily jail population by 17 percent over two years and by 21 percent in three years, which would be great to see if done responsibly. The county and city of Spokane will match the $1.75 million grant investment by committing $1.2 million to the effort over the next three years.

County Commissioner Shelly O’Quinn said in a press release last week that the foundation’s support validates work being done by the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council, which includes a cross-section of the county’s criminal justice leadership and also concerned citizens. The Council will help carry out the laudable reforms that are envisioned.

The grant is part of a national initiative that the foundation has dubbed the Safety and Justice Challenge and that’s meant  to model and inspire effective criminal justice reforms across the country. At the local level, the real challenge will be ensuring that the reforms adopted continue on indefinitely, long after the grant funding has been exhausted.

The economy here, as a whole, will reflect the effectiveness of those reforms.

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