Why not try real solutions?
Spokane could just decide to love its community more. Everyone wants less crime, but leaning on police to do all the work just creates more prisoners. We need to actually invest in our community; in each other.
Spokane County’s criminal legal system discriminates against people of color and those poor enough to need a public defender. Despite continuous claims by elected officials that this information is contested or subjective, this fact is incredibly well-documented in many different reports, which will be referenced throughout this piece: the 2008 “Spokane County Corrections Needs Assessment MasterPlan”, the JFA Institute’s 2019 report, the 2013 Blueprint for Reform, and the 2020 Blueprint for Reform Status Update.
Additionally, experts who have worked within the system over the years, such as JFA Institute Vice President Wendy Ware, former Spokane County Public Defender Tom Krzyminski, ACLU Legal Strategy Director Jaime Hawk, and former Spokane Regional Law and Justice Administrator Maggie Yates have come forward to share their personal concerns with Spokane County’s criminal legal system. This piece will also refer to their expertise.
The JFA Institute, a criminal justice research agency contracted by Spokane County, released a report in 2019 detailing:
This miscarriage of justice has worsened in recent years.
Racial minorities in Spokane are jailed at a disproportionate rate.
Spokane County jail incarcerates more people of color by population–especially Black people and Native Americans–than it jails white people. When adjusted for population, Spokane County jails over 2,000 Black people per 100,000, compared to only 165 white people per 100,000. In other words, if you are a Black person in Spokane County, you are 13 times more likely to be jailed than a white person. This discrepancy is not explained by the crime rate or crime severity.
People of Color in Spokane are kept in jail longer than white people.
People of color are kept in Spokane County jail longer than their white counterparts. Black people are especially affected, serving an average of 27 days in jail, almost twice as long as the 15 days white people are incarcerated on average. A 2008 report commissioned by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office called, “Spokane County Corrections Needs Assessment Master Plan,” concluded there was no relationship between defendant risk and their court-decided pre-trial release. In other words, the length of time people are held in jail before ever being convicted of a crime is completely unrelated to the risk – or lack thereof – they pose to the public.
The JFA Institute’s report also documents years of unequal incarceration rates, leading to longer jail sentences for people of color as recently as 2019. In fact, most people stuck in Spokane County jail simply can’t pay bail. 70% of the jail’s population is being held pretrial, away from their medications, family, and jobs. This incarceration leads to higher conviction rates (as people are more likely to take plea deals to get out of jail), job loss, and can disqualify people from therapeutic alternatives to jail in the future.
Jaime Hawk, a former federal public defender in Spokane and law professor at Gonzaga University, is currently serving as legal strategy director of ACLU of Washington’s Campaign for Smart Justice. She explained to the Spokesman-Review “[t]his pretrial detention is the pipeline to mass incarceration.” When a defendant is not rich enough to afford their own lawyer, a court rule states that judges are supposed to reduce bail accordingly, so people are not imprisoned for being poor. Hawk continues, “One of the problems, frankly, is that the court rule is not followed as consistently as it should be.” Defendants who need a public defender are often stuck in jail because they can’t pay bail, and are more likely to plead guilty when a judge finally sees them, so they can leave with “time served.”
Spokane’s Superior Court processes people incredibly slowly, and has multiple hurdles designed to throw people back in jail if they miss one.
Spokane County’s Superior Court has significant processing delays. The clock starts from the moment a person is booked in jail. If they are released for any reason – by posting bail or by pleading guilty with time served to other charges – it takes an average of 70 days for their charges to be filed by the Superior Court. This delay leads to an abnormally high failure-to-appear rate, as documented in both the JFA Institute’s report as well as the Blueprint for Reform. The JFA Institute found 37% of defendants released from Superior Court without a future court date – since their charges haven’t yet been processed – then missed their first court hearing 4+ months later. Once they didn’t show for their pre-trial hearing, they were then charged with failure-to-appear in addition to their original, belated charges. Everyone who fails to appear is then arrested and jailed until trial.
The Spokane Criminal Justice Commission’s 2013 Blueprint for Reform noted that a defendant’s presence is not necessary at these pre-trial hearings, and simply allowing their lawyer to handle the hearings was sufficient. The Blueprint recommended the prosecution “eliminate mandatory court appearances of defendants for all hearings except for trials and sentencing hearings”. Despite throwing an abnormally high number of people in jail with additional charges, and consistently wasting the court’s time and money, the Blueprint’s recommendation has been ignored.
Despite acknowledging that 20% of people leaving jail are homeless without an address, Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell’s prosecutorial team files even more charges, now for failing-to-appear to a trial for these significantly delayed charges. Over half of all failures-to-appear occur 4+ months after being released from jail. Former Spokane Regional Law and Justice Administrator Maggie Yates wrote in her resignation email, “We lament these figures, along with repeated arrests and persistent racial disparities, yet we fail to adequately invest in infrastructure that can better treat, house and heal people.” The Spokane Criminal Justice Commission in 2020 published The Blueprint for Reform—Status Report that outlined infrastructure such as underutilized therapeutic courts that could correct some racial inequality, but Larry has opposed expansion.
Spokane County prosecutors file an abnormally high number of narcotic felony charges for the population and per individual, according to JFA Institute Vice President Wendy Ware. Spokane prosecutors file almost twice as many non-violent felony narcotic charges as Washington state’s average. They are also loading up defendants with additional charges – 4.2 on average, with Black defendants most likely to be charged with five or more crimes. “This is high,” Ware said. “We usually see [people charged with] an average of about 2.5.”
Recently retired Spokane County Public Defender Tom Krzyminski doesn’t believe all the charges filed by prosecutors are appropriate for the alleged crime. He told the Inlander in 2017 about felony burglary charges he believes should be misdemeanor-level trespassing, and shoplifting incidents that are “really a misdemeanor level, but…charged as a robbery.” Krzyminski, other attorneys, and Spokane judges have criticized County Prosecutor Larry Haskell – who leads the Spokane County Prosecutor’s Office – for the practice of overcharging. Evidence of overcharging can be found in the JFA Institute’s report.
The Corrections Master Plan reports that not all the charges people are jailed for are actually filed. The Superior Court doesn’t file a shocking 31% of their felony charges. ACLU Strategy Director Jaime Hawk suggests the initial overcharging is meant to encourage defendants to take plea deals. After the slow-moving legal system gets a charged but un-convicted individual in front of a judge, defendants are given a choice: contest all their charges with a court-assigned, overworked public defender and risk more jail, or plead guilty to some of the charges. If they plead guilty, they are allowed to leave jail with time served, and with their additional, known pending charges dismissed. The Corrections Master Plan found 50% of all arrests, and 59% of felony narcotics bookings, result in no conviction, or a conviction resulting from reduced charges. If a defendant cannot pay an unaffordable high bail, choosing to challenge their charges in court means they will have to spend more time away from their homes, families, and jobs, with no guarantee of a Not Guilty verdict. Half of all arrests don’t want to risk more court time and choose this offered plea deal, exchanging a guilty conviction for freedom and the dropping of the rest of their charges, but this is not always the end of their legal troubles.
In 2019 JFA Institute Vice President Wendy Ware met with the Spokane Justice Task Force to present their observations and reported, “The proportion of people [of] color in jail is going up.” While Spokane County Jail’s total population number remained relatively stable from 2014 to 2019, the white population has decreased since 2016, while people of color make up a larger percentage each year. The total number of white people in jail actually decreased in both 2018 and the first half of 2019, when the JFA Institute ended its research. At the same time, the number of people identifying as Hispanic almost doubled, while people of color comprised an increasing 30% of the Spokane County jail population.
Lamenting and hand wringing is not good enough. Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, County Commissioners, and Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell know their policies jail people of color more often, and for longer. The Spokane County government has paid several consultants and institutes to report the abnormally high amount of charges levied against people of color, especially Black people. They’ve received blueprints for resolving this racial and financial inequality. Spokane has even received millions in grant funding to help them build a more equitable legal system.
Yet this incredible racial inequity in the jail population, which is not based on crime severity or threat to the public, has only worsened in recent years. Something must change, to correct the current system of injustice, and it must start with the people running this discriminatory system. Spokane County Prosecutor Larry Haskell has supported this current system and has been outspoken against change for racial equity.
Spokane needs a holistic public safety and wellness network, and our criminal legal system needs community-inclusive oversight bodies with the power to implement the changes the Corrections Master Plan, the JFA Institute, and the Blueprint for Reform have stressed are necessary for equity and justice.