Smart Justice

Community Court

 

IMG_0179I was walking in downtown Spokane on my way to the library headed to Community Court. It is where all the cool kids hang out on Mondays mid-morning to early afternoon. Why do we hang out there, you may ask. Because we care about our community, because we want to help people, we want to make an impact.

Who are these cool kids and what do they do at the downtown library? We are a ragtag group of community organizations that collaborates with the courts to get disadvantaged (and usually impoverished) people the services they need.

Community Court is open to everyone but many start through the courts, as low level, non-violent offenders that would otherwise be jailed for minor offences that are often related their homelessness, drug or alcohol dependency or mental illness. Putting them in jail for minor offenses is expensive for the city and doesn’t help these folks. So the prosecutors, public defenders and the judge collaborate with community organizations to get them services instead.

There are a variety of organizations there to help people get signed up for mental health services, housing, public benefits and oh so much more. I go to represent the Center for Justice and to help people sign up for Medicaid or Washington Apple Health as it’s known in these parts.

Back to my story. I continued my stroll through downtown. IMG_0166The sun was shining, the air was crisp and not many people were out. I always enjoy the walk when the weather is nice. It’s only about a half a mile from my office and the stretch runs along beautiful Riverfront Park with its artwork, fountain and the river running right through the middle of it.

As I got close to crossing the street near the library, a bicyclist sped by and made eye contact. I gave a little nod and he nodded back. He was long and lean and a stocking cap covered much of his head but I could make out some short dreads underneath. He was holding a large piece of cardboard in one hand as he raced by.

I got to the library and settled in at my table with all the other service providers. Said my hellos to friends and set up my computer and my vast array of pamphlets. It got busy.

The tall cyclist came wandering in and sat at my table. He introduced himself. He had the name of a little town in California not too far from where I used to live in my youth. Hearing it brought a smile to my face.

He was soft spoken and polite. He looked like a guy who had just fallen on hard times and was trying to get himself back on track. I signed him up for healthcare without a hitch. He thanked me and left my table. I distractedly went on about my work and finished up for the day.

As I was walking out in a slew of others leaving, he came running up to me from behind. He was out of breath as he handed me the folded piece of cardboard. I opened it up and thanked him. He was gone in a flash. This is what he left behind. I think sharing his artwork was his way of extending a little gratitude for the help I had given him.

 

Comm Court pic

click the links below for more about community court

http://www.inlander.com/spokane/a-new-approach/Content?oid=2243257

http://www.spokesman.com/stories/2016/apr/19/spokanes-community-court-gets-200000-boost/

http://www.spokanelibrary.org/community-court/

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.