To Lock up, or Not to Jail?

To fine or ticket or not to? THAT is the Question!

[Note: Again, real national-level news from a small town, Spokane, in a small state, Washington. This is published now at Spokane Living Magazine. Great photos by my daughter, Makenna. A community college student in Spokane. What more does the world want than a radical revolutionary who write kick-ass better-than-that-Hunter/freak/Thompson AND also does straight ahead journalism?]

More Bang for the Public Safety Buck: Criminal Justice Commission Pushes a No New Jail Thesis

Leaner and smarter, rather than lean and mean, seems to be the mantra around Spokane and the region when talking about incarceration.

Smarter:  holding offenders accountable

Leaner: keeping people out of not only jail, but out of the system in the first place

In comes this national system, that is, an international philosophy called Smart Justice (SJ). In a nutshell, the SJ movement in Spokane, with more than 30 groups and hundreds of stakeholders heralding it, is a template for much more touchy-feely programs that aim to reduce recidivism, that look at the whole person once that person is “in the criminal justice system,” that stop the selective prosecution of folks with outstanding fines who end up clogging our jails and courts.

Hand in hand, Smart-and-data-driven-Justice puts assessment and accountability at the top of the agenda.

Here are what lawyers Julie Schaffer and Breean Beggs are seeing as the crux of this movement promising both a safer community and saner justice system:

The Smart Justice Campaign is advocating for an end to outdated polices that jail people for failing to pay fines and other non-violent behavior. We are demanding that taxpayer dollars not be used to build more jail beds, but rather are invested in alternatives to incarceration, including diversion from jail, and support services that hold people accountable for their behavior and provide opportunities for change. The results from an assessment of the person’s risk and needs will allow a judge to match each person with the appropriate interventions. We must also take intentional steps to eliminate racial disparities.”

One fellow with national credentials, Doug Marlowe, is a lawyer, psychologist and university researcher who arrived in Spokane in September 2012 to kick off this new upsurge in dealing with sagging city and county budgets.

“Prisons and jails are expensive,” he told me on his way to talk to a group of judges in Nebraska. “Evidence-based sentencing works, and finally after many decades, we are seeing more and more people like judges and police looking at the reality that most people who are incarcerated do get out of jail.” What we do before sentencing and at the time of booking is important to those outcomes. Marlowe sees SJ as society-changing.

Marlowe studies drug courts and digs into those many alternatives to incarceration. He didn’t know much about Spokane’s history or movers and shakers when I talked with him, but overall he told me that the same criminal justice challenges in Spokane are occurring nationally.

Global Healing

Take a look at Australia’s Smart Justice credo: “ Prisons are meant to protect the community and rehabilitate offenders. Yet, evidence shows that prison often fails to rehabilitate people and may increase the risk of reoffending. Despite this, we continue to lock up more and more people, most of whom are from disadvantaged backgrounds, at huge social and financial cost to the community. Putting more people in prison diverts resources from vital social infrastructure and cost effective initiatives which have been shown to successfully address the underlying causes of crime.”

In a synthesized way, we have jail overcrowding and budget drains on programs like real rehabilitation, monitoring, mental health and jobs counseling. Marlowe harps on evidence-based criminal justice. He describes his own calling as one of “therapeutic jurisprudence” —  his area of expertise around behavioral science and making communities safer and changing the law, like minimum sentencing laws that never looked at the individual, just the rule of law.

Minimum sentencing mandates handcuff judges, and never allow community stakeholders, family, and other professionals a chance to weigh in on an offender’s future. Drug courts work, and so do other ways to correct misbehavior.  Marlowe, like others, is looking at “getting people who are reentering into the community after being incarcerated into community programs.”

Stuffed to the Rafters

For Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich, the County jail is overcrowded, a powder keg about to explode. “You have people who do not want to play by the rules. What do you want to do with people? There is no panacea. If you want Smart Justice to work – and I am a proponent of that – you have to have that empty bed.”

Count that – 1,400 beds, as opposed to the current 464 “true” jail cots. Knezovich says were are overcrowded, at 577 inmates, with Geiger as the overflow. That night in jail, well, we are talking about on the front end, $129 a day, bologna sandwich included.

The sheriff sees most of those arrested as high risk, that is, most likely to reoffend. “We are arresting the worst of the worst.” Count that as 21,000 bookings for fiscal year 2011 in the County poky. He’s continuing the push for a new county jail he started when first running for County Sheriff.  If not a new one, then at least a jail makeover on the scale of a Martha Stewart-on-steroids rehab-retrofit- remodel.  “Spokane County jail is vastly overcrowded. Geiger is not designed to be a jail. We are just one incident away from a crisis.”

Breean Beggs, once the lead lawyer for the Center for Justice, and now on his own in private practice, sees another narrative: “We already built a new jail in my lifetime here. I don’t think Spokane wants to spend $13 million or $15 million are year on capital expenditures for a 1,400 bed jail.”

The sheriff and Beggs, who just kicked off his quest for the County Prosecutor’s position, look at that same criminal justice glass, one being half-empty (we need a new jail) and one half-full (we have to initiate home monitoring, mental health treatment, drug diversion courts).

The task of saving money and not throwing down several hundred million for a new jail with a bond interest rate of almost $60 million over 20 years rests on us, the taxpayer, and, unfortunately, on elected officials. One solid move toward data-driven SJ was the three judge pro bono commission, Spokane Regional Criminal Justice Commission. Their draft report came out last November: “ A Bluprint for Reform:  Creating an Efficient and Effective Regional Criminal Justice System.”

See, Hear, Speak Alternative Justice

“I think this Commission report gives us the opportunity to move ahead with alternative justice, what we call Smart Justice,” Beggs said.

Assessing individuals at the time of booking, that is, looking at offenders as people, this is the underpinning of what Beggs, Marlowe and Julie Schaffer cite as Smart Justice.

“Simple but necessary things have to be in place,” says Schaffer, Center for Justice attorney. “I hope there is a real culture change in Spokane. Look, when someone is picked up and put into the system, there has to be an immediate assessment. If that person isn’t violent, we continue working with them, around drug or alcohol addiction. Other services provided. We have to invest in a long term approach. From the time someone is picked up and awaiting trail, it will cost us $8 a day for electronic monitoring.  Plus the individual will be receiving necessary services.”

Services like employment coaching, mental health services, drug-alcohol rehab, maybe even education.

Looking at the three judges’ conclusions in this report, a reader might think he or she is reading something from a UC-Berkeley graduate alternative law class:

“It has become clear to us that the regional criminal justice system is maladapted for current and future needs. As it is exists it is stove-piped and inefficient, save for a few ‘pockets of excellence.’ There is a lack of trust, no unified leadership, duplicated services between and among jurisdictions across the system, and it unnecessarily costs the City and County taxpayers thousands of extra dollars each day. Much of the current system is measured on trivial factors, rather than using valid metrics that measure such variables as recidivism, program completions, and outcomes that reflect enhanced public safety. This is in part due to the fact that our local criminal justice process has been offense based rather than offender based for too long, and has resulted in a system unable to measure the outcomes we need to achieve.”

With Julie Schaffer and others working at the Center for Justice around cultural change, we are seeing more push for police accountability measures around a real police ombudsman with teeth, independence and power to the people to investigate charges of police brutality, malpractice, and excesses, both ethical and illegal, by the men and women in blue.

Lock-down SPD – Cops Who Turn Bad

Proposition 1 was passed by a 70 percent margin in last year. The initiative calls for more powers to an ombudsman and public oversight of the men and women carrying guns and wearing badges. The defining moment for the current activists around getting Police Ombudsman Tim Burns more power was a March 2006 Zip Trip soda run by a developmentally disabled man, Otto Zehm, who was beaten comatose and died two days later.

The perps who assaulted and killed him were cops from the Spokane Police Department. His crime? Hanging onto a two-liter plastic bottle of soda he was about to purchase. There should have and could have been a radically different outcome. Now, Crisis Intervention Training is a key part of criminal justice the Center for Justice, Beggs and others fought for. Cops are now being trained by experts in mental health and even culture and race relations.

My own work with developmentally disabled adults and the hundreds of hours of training I’ve logged point to some pretty universal facts that are disturbing to any criminal justice model: many people in jail are mentally disabled. In fact, working with folk who were counselors in that terrible system, Fairview Mental Hospital before it was dismantled in Oregon, I hear them say hands down that one might typically find 60 percent, or more, of a prison or jail population diagnosed with FASD – fetal alcohol spectrum disorders.

No More Eye for an Eye, Tooth for a Tooth

One group heavy on the trail of ombudsman, police accountability, and citizen oversight is PJALS: Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane. Liz Moore has been the director of PJALS for years and is on board the Smart Justice coalition:

“Now we’re beginning to talk more about the fact that a root problem is the outdated system of retribution,” she says. ”We want to have safe communities where folks who violate rules are held accountable AND are given the tools to change their lives and make different choices. Retribution doesn’t do that. Locking people up is the worst plan long term. Jail is the most expensive and least effective plan to reduce recidivism. We need to learn about and adopt models of accountability and justice that are NOT based on retribution. There are lots of great examples, models, and programs we can learn from, just like we can learn from the mental health & drug courts that have been established so far.”

For a leader in the African American community like James Wilburn, he’s tired of the heavy toll on the black community in Spokane through racial profiling and discriminatory policing. “It’s criminal to see black youth suspended three to one over other youth in Spokane schools. When the criminal justice system locks up black males for minor offenses, outstanding fines, we have both a broken and racist system.”

He’s the new Spokane NAACP president and works at Rogers high school on closing the achievement gap for black students. His eye is on alternative sentencing and real programs to help with poverty, jobs, housing, and education.

The Spokane County Sheriff sees social ills also playing a role in jailing people. “Three things cause people to go to jail: education, housing, jobs. Look, we have something like 97 percent in jail who don’t have a high school diploma. Then, 65 percent don’t have jobs. If you don’t have a job, well, then you can’t afford a place, a house. You end up on the streets, following the wrong crowd.”

Wilburn and the African American community held a big summit at the Red Lion to try and tackle the school to prison pipeline we wrote about in the December 2013 issue. One celebrity they brought was TV’s Judge Joe Brown. Unfortunately, his shoot-from-the-hip message included another form of retributive justice many in the Smart Justice community take issue with: taking a good swipe or shove at your recalcitrant or malcontent kid.

Since that summit and since the draft report from Judges Jim McDevitt, Jim Murphy and Phillip Wetzel was released, one source for the story, Breean Beggs, announced putting his hat in the ring to be County Prosecutor.

“As a lawyer, I am trained to go into situations that are challenging: get into the muck and still achieve community resolution,” Beggs says. “If I am going to run as chief prosecutor, I have these tools at my disposal – jail or prison, which are not very effective. Now that three well known judges have signed onto Smart Justice, I thought that maybe I could be part of the solution.”

That solution, which Beggs said was linked to a dog walking “eureka moment” at Manito Park, is a “once in a lifetime opening with no heir apparent challenging for the position.” He’s hitching his campaign on the Smart Justice superstructure holding up all those socio-psychological feel-good things: “reducing substantially the number of people going to jail and the number of people who are addicts.”

Cycles Start at Home, in School

The piggybacking of more stories and sources from the school-to-prison pipeline piece I wrote is a good way to end this article: I was contacted by a mother, Virla, 34, and proud to have two daughters wanting to excel in their studies and move into the college world. Except, she’s been fighting a system of racism. Her ninth grader has been harassed by bigoted white students, and the senior sibling, an honors student, intervened. She was suspended. Virla sees a culture of ineffective administrators and biased teachers.

Virla makes it clear: “I have been fighting institutional racism at Rogers for years.” Rogers High School, swith a large African American student body, is an example of a system that is also in need of triage: one African American teacher, black students being failed for missing school after being suspended for talking back or facing down their oppressors.

The wannabe prosecutor Beggs was shell shocked when he looked at the updated public safety indicators with the Priorities Spokane Indicator Project. “We looked at how many blacks are arrested in Spokane County. More than 5,700 arrests. That’s 25 percent of total arrests.”

Virla and Wilburn know the stats by heart – Spokane County’s black population is 1.8 percent of total residents.  Smart Justice might get under that tip of the iceberg. Beggs and Moore are looking at data that basically states poor people, both black and of other races, are stopped more often by cops, treated more harshly, and end up in jail more often where they get longer sentences and less access to alcohol and drug treatment programs.   Hands down, that’s Dumb Justice 101.

Police had been sweeping up and ticketing more than 10,000 public school students every year,   over 90% youth of color, for being absent or late to school. Most LAUSD Black and Latino working class, low-income families could simply not afford the $250 tickets, the additional $1000 in court fees, and the missed days of work to attend the required court hearings. Unpaid fines accumulated over the past decade have resulted in driver’s license holds for upwards of 300,000 youth, many of whom are now adults.    Report, Black, Brown and Over-Policed in LA Schools, Community Rights Campaign, released on the 50th Anniversary of the March on Washington.

Paul Haeder's been a teacher, social worker, newspaperman, environmental activist, and marginalized muckraker, union organizer. Paul's book, Reimagining Sanity: Voices Beyond the Echo Chamber (2016), looks at 10 years (now going on 17 years) of his writing at Dissident Voice. Read his musings at LA Progressive. Read (purchase) his short story collection, Wide Open Eyes: Surfacing from Vietnam now out, published by Cirque Journal. Here's his Amazon page with more published work Amazon. Read other articles by Paul, or visit Paul's website.