Justice Files

Hurt lingers 10 years after Zehm’s death

By Jeffry Finer / Special to The Spokesman-Review

I remember Otto Zehm.

Working downtown, I would see him from time to time walking, loping really – he walked fast and bounced from step to step – but I never so much as said hello. I did not know he was a musician, or that he had mental illness, that he sometimes heard things the rest of us didn’t. I knew he had the longest golden hair of anyone on the Spokane street scene. And he sang quietly to himself. He smiled but did not seem to want attention. He moved along in his own world. He’d be surprised what his name has come to mean. And how often city leaders and media cite his life and death.

For Spokane, his name evokes strong reactions.

Some see Otto’s death on a personal level. He was beloved by his family (mother, sister and cousins were closest). He was respected and liked at work (at the nonprofit Skils’kin, where he was a janitor). Friends said he was careless with generosity and would give you his only coat if he saw you were cold. Everyone knew him to be gentle.

Most of Spokane, of course, knows about his death in 2006 after two days on life support. We watched local media play and replay his videotaped beating and restraint by a half-dozen local police officers. We know about the City Hall cover-up, the federal criminal case and Officer Karl Thompson’s conviction.

For some of us, the “system worked.” For others, the aftermath of Otto’s death was a system failure that ruined a good cop.

If you voted in February 2013 for Proposition 1, and 70 percent of Spokane voters did, you remember Otto as the poster child for passage of a strongly worded demand for an independent police ombudsman. And unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know the office of the ombudsman is in tatters.

Spokane tries to move on.

Officer Thompson has served his time and just this month has been released. The Use of Force Commission met for a year, issued two dozen specific recommendations and dissolved. Some recommendations have taken hold; others, such as changes to Spokane’s “police culture,” have not.

Local civil rights advocates press on – working hard to see that we get the independent ombudsman we overwhelmingly voted for, moving “smart justice” reforms ahead to fix our broken criminal justice system, and pushing the city to hire a new chief of police who is committed to implement the changes our community needs. Other law enforcement issues have come under scrutiny, such as the understaffed jail, its lack of nurses and timely medical services. Just more budget-driven problems facing us and every city and county in America.

Overall? We have yet to heal our relationship with our own peace officers. They have yet to heal their relationship with us.

On the day Officer Thompson was taken into custody, the Friday after the verdict finding him guilty of excessive force and lying in a federal investigation, I sat in the gallery behind Assistant Chief Craig Meidl. He and some four dozen men and women – off-duty police officers sworn to uphold the law – snapped to salute as federal marshals led Officer Thompson away. Otto’s middle-age cousins seated with me were stunned into silence. We looked for help but the court had left and its staff seemed powerless.

In 30 years, I’ve never felt such repressed tension in a courtroom. The marshals, wisely I think, took Thompson away uncuffed and the officers gradually left the courtroom. My apology to the Zehm cousins for the salute brought a cold stare from two officers. At the elevator, another officer blamed the sole reporter present for causing Thompson’s conviction.

It is said that no one should be judged solely by their worst day; and in that sense Officer Thompson’s supporters may have been feeling a conflicted affinity for him. But it remains troubling that the department has failed to account to the public for the embrace by 50 of its officers of a convicted felon. Troubling that there has been no apology and no consequences.

A lot needs doing to restore our faith and trust in our police. Their work requires such trust as surely as we require faithful police. The Center for Justice, where I work with a team of lawyers and community activists, coordinates with citizens, police and local officials to make our city safer and fairer for everyone.

Sometimes the struggle goes on quietly in meetings, or noisily in the media. But a certain spirit of gentleness inspires us at times to keep a memory of Otto Zehm alive. Not only as saber-rattling social change warriors but as neighbors, colleagues, friends and people who remember Otto Zehm.

Legal Financial Obligations: “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons”

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A huge thanks to intern Jerusha Dressel for researching and writing this blog post.

In 2003, Washington resident David Ramirez was convicted of residential burglary. Currently, the father of four still struggles to make his $30 Legal Financial Obligation (LFO) payment each month. Ramirez cannot go back to his former employment due to medical issues and consequently, the family relies on $400 a month in public aid as well as food stamps for their income. The constant threat of arrest if a payment is missed lingers over him. He is forced to decide between jail and meeting his family’s basic needs: “The message the courts have sent to me over and over again is that if I don’t pay in full every month, I’ll go to jail and I’ll lose everything. I’ve had judges tell me that they don’t care what my other obligations are, LFOs come first. First before food and shelter. It doesn’t matter what my family suffers, so long as the court gets paid.”[1]

In February 2014, the ACLU published a report entitled “Modern-Day Debtors’ Prisons: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor.” The report specifically focused on LFOs in the State of Washington and their effects on offenders and law enforcement efficacy. The report found that 80 to 90 percent of individuals facing felony charges are deemed “indigent” and over half of persons in prison have not obtained a high school diploma.[2] Almost everyone convicted of a crime in the state of Washington must pay LFOs.

Given that a significant portion of the convicted criminal population falls into such a low income bracket and are poorly educated, it is not a stretch to imagine how this could have adverse effects. Many individuals simply want to leave prison and move on with their lives, but LFOs represent a constant reminder of their past. The average LFO for a convicted felon is $2,540 and LFOs for felonies accrue interest at a rate of 12 percent in Washington, which includes the time that the offender is in prison. In light of the high fraction of convicted felons who are labeled indigent, this is an enormous amount and can take years to pay off. LFOs often create a lose-lose situation for offenders and the government. Many individuals are sent back to prison due to an inability to make payments on their LFOs. This may interrupt employment and pull children apart from their parents. According to the ACLU, this “court imposed debt presents a formidable barrier, pushing people deeper into poverty and prolonging their involvement with the criminal justice system.”[3] The criminal justice system is required to process additional paperwork and hunt down and jail persons who fail to keep up on their LFO fees.

Although state statute allows a court to take into account an individual’s financial situation when imposing optional LFOs, that often does not happen. In many cases, persons making payments on LFOs are also dependent on public aid programs such as Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). These programs are giving these individuals/families funds just so they can sustain an elemental standard of living. However, recipients can be obligated by a court to reroute the money away from necessities such as food and housing in order to pay off LFOs.[4]

In response to the “debtors’ prison” problem in Washington, the ACLU has made seven recommendations. Among these, it encouraged creating “clear statewide criteria for determining a person’s ability to pay LFOs.”[5] The ACLU maintained that taking into account an individual’s financial situation when determining LFOs should be mandatory. There are currently no standards set for the examination of an individual’s financial situation. Clear guidelines need to be established for determining whether a person is fiscally capable of handling LFO payments. The ACLU also recommends that Washington “[e]liminate the current 12% interest rate on non-restitution LFOs, and suspend all interest during incarceration.”[6] Additional proposals include ensuring that defendants understand their rights and are allowed council throughout the court process.[7]

The Center for Justice provides services to aid those struggling under the burden of LFOs:

  • We can ask the courts to waive the interest that has accrued on non-restitution LFOs, either while an individual was incarcerated or after he or she was released.
  • We can ask the courts to reduce interest that has accrued on restitution.
  • We can help determine if LFOs will ever expire.
  • We can help create a realistic, long-term budgeting strategy that allows the individual to make payments on their LFOs and avoid sanctions for nonpayment.

This is all part of an effort to reduce the number of individuals trapped in a cycle of poverty. Before making payments on their LFOs, persons should be permitted to ensure that basic needs such as food and housing are being met. Moreover, by aiding in the development of long-term budget strategies, the Center helps the individual become an active participant in his or her success.

Across Washington, there are situations similar to that of David Ramirez. Individuals committed a crime years ago and really just want to move on with their lives cannot because they are still living with the burden of LFOs. These are ordinary, everyday people with families to provide for and dreams for the future. Despite his situation, Ramirez expresses optimism about the future, “I believe in America, you know? I love this country. I want to start a business and provide for my family. My kids are straight A students, and I want them to go to college. But right now, I feel like the fines keep me from getting up and breathing and being the person I want to be.”[8]

[1] “MODERN-DAY DEBTORS’ PRISONS: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor,” ACLU, February 2014, accessed February 29, 2016, http://cforjustice.org/legal-services/legal-financial-obligations-lfos/.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] “MODERN-DAY DEBTORS’ PRISONS: The Ways Court-Imposed Debts Punish People for Being Poor,” ACLU.

Driver Relicensing: Encouraging Individuals to Take Responsibility for Their Futures

A huge thanks to intern Jerusha Dressel for researching and writing this blog post.

Under current statutes in the State of Washington, an individual’s driver’s license can be “suspended indefinitely” if he or she fails to appear in court or pay a ticket.[1] In contrast, the suspension period is one year for a vehicular assault conviction, two years for a vehicular homicide conviction, and 30 days for a reckless driving conviction.[2] An increasing percentage of driver’s license suspensions are not for offenses where the individual is deemed to pose a threat to society. A 2013 study done by the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) found that driver’s license suspensions for “social non-conformance reasons” represented 39 percent of suspended driver’s licenses, up from 29 percent in 2002: “Drivers are now commonly suspended for reasons such as bounced checks, fuel theft, truancy, vandalism and many more.”[3] Nevertheless, it was also found by the AAMVA that driver’s license suspensions for crimes unrelated to traffic safety are largely ineffective. Because the punishment is not closely tied to the original offense, the offender, the court and the police do not give it as much weight.

A driver’s license suspension can be debilitating for an individual. Grocery shopping, picking up a child from daycare and getting to work all become much more difficult tasks. Unpaid fines accumulate interest and often result in more fines. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights of the San Francisco Bay Area looked at individuals whose licenses had been suspended as a result of violations unrelated to driver’s safety. They found that many of these individuals were unable to keep their jobs due to a lack of transportation and eventually just gave up on paying back their fines, resulting in perpetual suspensions of their licenses. A cycle of poverty has been created by this system in which individuals become weighed down by fines they cannot pay. Jim Gramling, a former municipal court judge in Milwaukee, described the frequently occurring situation: “Often they’re living lives where they can’t afford to leave a job early, or at all, to go to court. They can’t hire a lawyer, can’t afford a lawyer. So they often let the cases go by default and don’t challenge tickets that maybe should be challenged.”[4]

The relicensing program at the Center for Justice exists to help individuals who have had their licenses suspended re-obtain their licenses and pay off their fines. Clients are responsible for the $150 payment that goes along with relicensing and are required to pay additional fees including Department of Licensing and Court fees. The process generally takes two to four weeks. The purpose of the driver’s relicensing program is to empower “people to take the first steps towards gaining responsibility and independence.”[5] In 2015, the Center for Justice aided in the relicensing of more than 400 persons,[6] indirectly benefiting the Spokane community by combatting poverty, increasing the efficiency of law enforcement officers and allowing clients to take ownership in their future.

The AAMVA found that individuals who have their driver’s licenses have a higher probability of a steady job. Enabling an individual to maintain steady employment is integral to fighting poverty. Additionally, decreasing the number of individuals with their license suspended frees up police resources. The amount of time and money currently being expended by law enforcement officers in citing and appearing in court for individuals whose licenses were revoked for violations unrelated to driver’s safety is enormous. The broad application of the driver’s license suspension punishment is draining funds from numerous areas of the criminal justice system. The AAMVA report concluded that, “In addition to the cost of the law enforcement officer’s time – jailers, corrections officers, judges, judicial clerks, bailiffs, prosecutors, support staff, and defense attorneys are all potentially involved in the process and could potentially benefit from the elimination of social non-conformance suspensions.”[7]

The structure of the relicensing program at the Center for Justice encourages individuals to take responsibility for their future. The program seeks to help clients gain their independence, but requires participants to take an active role in the process. In addition to the fee due to the center, the client is responsible for filling out paperwork related to their relicensing. Each client is required to sign a conduct pledge agreeing to treat employees at the Center for Justice with “respect, dignity, and fairness” and they are held accountable to this pledge throughout their relicensing process. In addition, as part of this pledge, clients agree to bring in required documents in a prompt manner. If a client fails to hold up his or her end of the bargain, he or she may be removed from the program. By placing a substantial amount of responsibility on the individual, the Center hopes that the individual will feel more ownership and pride in the process.

 

[1] “Why does the Center for Justice have this program?” Center for Justice, accessed February 26, 2016, http://cforjustice.org/legal-services/getting-my-license-back/.
[2] “Reckless driving,” Washington State Department of Licensing, accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/suspendrecklessdriving.html. “Vehicular assault,” Washington State Department of Licensing, accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/suspendvassault.html.
“Vehicular homicide,” Washington State Department of Licensing, accessed February 26, 2016, http://www.dol.wa.gov/driverslicense/suspendvhomicide.html.
[3] “Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers,” American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators, February 2013, PDF, accessed February 26, 2016.
[4] Joseph Shapiro, “Can’t Pay Your Fines? Your License Could Be Taken,” NPR, December 29, 2014,  http://www.npr.org/2014/12/29/372691960/cant-pay-your-fines-your-license-could-be-taken.
[5] CFJ Driver’s Relicensing Program Conduct Pledge.
[6] “CFJ Top 15 of 2015,” Center for Justice, accessed February 26, 2016, http://cforjustice.org/top-15-of-2015/.
[7] “Best Practices Guide to Reducing Suspended Drivers,” American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators.

Smart Justice: Recommendations for Reform

Western and many fellow prison-policy scholars have observed that American criminal-justice policy is built on the rheA huge thanks to intern Jerusha Dressel for researching and writing this blog post .

Although the U.S. contains only five percent of the globe’s population, the country houses 20 percent of its prisoners. Numerous individuals are let out of prison every day, but over two-thirds of these individuals will be detained again by police in the next three years and about half will be sent back to prison. Since 1978, the number of individuals in American prisons has increased by 408 percent. In Spokane, 70 percent of the budget goes towards funding the criminal justice system and half of the individuals in prison have not yet had a trial. Additionally, around 80 percent of prisoners have “substance abuse and/or mental health issues.”[1] Something is clearly wrong with these numbers. Instead of reforming the individual and aiding them in becoming functional members of society, the American prison system has become overcrowded and inefficient.

Smart Justice recognizes that there are groups, including ethnic minorities, the impoverished, and the disabled, that are disproportionately negatively affected by the criminal justice system in Spokane and it seeks to remedy this inequality. Its mission is “to implement comprehensive, cost-effective, and research-based smart justice reforms in the Spokane criminal justice system by conducting research, educating, mobilizing impacted voices, advocating and collaborating for a just, strong, and healthy community, which fosters racial equity and opportunities for recovery and integration.”[2] Smart Justice recognizes that hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars are being spent on a system that is largely ineffective. The coalition has put forward a list of six recommendations for improvement of the current criminal justice system:

  1. View the problem through a “Smart Justice Lens.”[3] That is, keep in mind the ultimate goal of reforming the system when making judgments and policy changes.
  2. Involve community input in solutions, especially voices from groups that are unduly negatively affected by the current system.
  3. Data on race and ethnicity should be used to improve current systems, rules and regulations.
  4. Reducing the number of individuals in prison through means including jail substitutes and alternate processes for rehabilitation should be explored, especially for “non-violent, low-risk” persons.[4]
  5. Analyze programs with the goal of understanding what is and is not working.
  6. Delay investing resources in increasing the size of the jail.[5]

The third point is referring to data that has demonstrated that certain ethnic groups are disparately impacted by the current justice system. In 2014, the demographics of the Spokane jails and Spokane County were as follows:

sj11There is a definite contrast between these two sets of statistics in the chart above. Although Caucasians make up 86 percent of the Spokane County population, they constitute only 67 percent of the jail population. Moreover, African-Americans compose two percent of the Spokane County population but 12 percent of the jail population and American Indians/Alaska Natives accounted for one percent of the general population but seven percent of the jail population.[6]

Additionally, Smart Justice has expounded upon its fourth recommendation. This policy change included a program that reminded persons of their court dates so that fewer individuals are jailed as a result of a simple “failure to appear.”[7] This point also involves the redirection of funds from financing jail time to paying for programs that aid the offender in overcoming personal problems such as addiction or mental health issues. Additionally, this policy recommendation pushes for an initial assessment of prisoners that helps “ensure that release conditions, plea negotiations and sanctions are matched to the individual’s risks and need.”[8] These evaluations would allow decisions about the offenders punishment and post-prison accountability program be catered to the individual’s requirements. The fourth point also recommends working with individuals once they leave prison, helping them with processes such as finding employment and housing.[9]

A Harvard Magazine article critiquing the American criminal justice system noted: “Western and many fellow prison-policy scholars have observed that American criminal-justice policy is built on the rhetoric of personal responsibility—paying for one’s bad decision—to the exclusion of asking why minority and low-income groups are so much more likely to make bad decisions, or how society fails them.”[10] In a democratic society, there is a tendency towards an individualistic, “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” mindset. This mentality is reflected in the American criminal justice system. However, there are individuals who do not even have bootstraps to pull themselves up by. Smart Justice aims to give individuals bootstraps. Instead of simply locking up someone every time they commit a crime, it invites a justice system that looks at offenders on a more individual basis. It allows for a structure that asks what is best for the improvement of the specific person.

 

Chart accessed February 22, 2016 from http://www.spokanecounty.org/data/scljc/subcommittees/racialequity/Data%20Slides%20Final.pdf.
[1] “Vision,” Smart Justice Spokane, accessed February 22, 2016, http://smartjusticewashington.org/vision/.
[2]“About Us,” Smart Justice Spokane, accessed February 22, 2016,  http://smartjusticewashington.org/about-us/.
[3] “Smart Justice Policy Recommendations,” Smart Justice Spokane, January 22, 2013, http://web.archive.org/web/20141225223703/http:/smartjusticewashington.org/media/blogs/spokane/Smart%20Justice%20Policy%20Recommendations.pdf?mtime=1364885768.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Spokane Regional Criminal Justice System Data Slides,” Spokane County, accessed February 22, 2016, http://www.spokanecounty.org/data/scljc/subcommittees/racialequity/Data%20Slides%20Final.pdf.
[7] “Smart Justice Policy Recommendations,” Smart Justice Spokane.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid.
[10] Elizabeth Gudrais, “The Prison Problem,” Harvard Magazine, March-April 2013, http://harvardmagazine.com/2013/03/the-prison-problem.