Smart Justice speakers report on how
their communities have reduced crime
Smart Justice Spokane, a coalition of 30 organizations that started three years ago with the goal of reforming the criminal justice system, has made progress, achieving better outcomes for people charged with crimes and for victims, said Julie Schaffer of the Center for Justice.
A sign of its growth is that 100 attended the Smart Justice Spokane Symposium two years ago, and 350 attended in November.
Organizers shared other signs of progress.
• The city has a Criminal Justice Commission, which developed a Blueprint for Reform, calling for a Regional Law and Justice Council.
• In 2013, the Spokane Community Court began to hear misdemeanor cases of non-violent offenders, implementing a problem-solving approach that promotes community service, supervision and treatment.
In opening the event, Liz Moore, director of the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane (PJALS), said Smart Justice Spokane was sparked by opposition to a proposal for a new, larger county jail, especially given the disproportionate number of people of color, and people suffering from mental illness and addictions who are in jail. Many are also in jail because of failure to pay fines.
“The county spends 70 percent of its budget on criminal justice, and jails house too many non-violent people who need treatment,” she said.
“The system is a revolving door because of obstacles to re-entry,” Liz said. “We spend too much money to warehouse people, rather than spending it on ways that reduce crime.”
The coalition seeks alternatives that foster racial equity, criminal justice reform, jobs and housing, home monitoring, and treatment for mental illness and addictions.
Two of six people who experienced incarceration and shared their stories during the morning session exemplify issues.
Layne Pavey, who founded the organization, I Did the Time, to promote opportunities for ex-offenders after re-entry from incarceration, earned a master’s degree in social work at Eastern Washington University, and is now a peer counselor and mental health clinician.
“Many people do not understand that sometimes all it takes is one person in the prison system to help us believe in ourselves again, believe we are worthy of recovery and can be successful in society when we’re released,” she said.
The subtle, encouraging way one social worker interacted with her the second night in county jail for drug charges influenced how she did the rest of her 20 months in prison. She voluntarily participated in treatment.
“When the system treats us like we can recover, recovery happens,” she said.
Across the nation, peer counselors, people who have “been there,” are being trained to help incarcerated people work through the system with accountability and hope for successful re-entry.
“Often we forget that people in jail have experienced a multitude of traumas in their lives. When attorneys are trained in the trauma-informed perspective, they learn to understand how the impact of trauma affects an offender in the courtroom, which helps an offender feel hopeful about solutions offered in the jail systems,” Layne said. “There is a direct correlation between how we are treated by our judge at sentencing and how willing we are to engage in treatment. When judges interact from the trauma-informed perspective, they can help break the cycle of recidivism.”
Just as the system asks people to take responsibility for what they do, Layne believes it’s time for the system to take responsibility for what it can do the break the cycle.
Steve Sivertsen, who recovered from 20 years of meth addiction that led him into 17 felonies and 20 misdemeanors, realized that the person he was hurting was himself. In 2009, he entered Oxford House and learned how to handle money responsibly.
For four years, he was a reentry specialist there and became board president of Open Gate Reentry. He sponsors a Narcotics Anonymous Program and Washington Drug Court.
In 2012, he earned an associate degree in electrical engineering and is employed in the aerospace industry.
“Treatment was vital. I gained tools I could use later. I still have work to do,” Steve said.
Two keynote speakers, Julian Adler and Jennifer Kim, shared possibilities for action.
Despite resistance to changing an entrenched system, Julian, director of the Red Hook Community Justice Center, a multi-jurisdictional community court in Brooklyn, N.Y., said that “it’s doable. I am speaking broadly about justice reform more than discrete alternative programs, because what we need is a new norm, a paradigm shift away from the jail/prison-based system,” he said.
Julian said the current jail-based system is bolstered by “the myth of the trial,” because more than 95 percent of convictions result from plea bargains.
Procedural justice in community courts, like Red Hook, drug courts and mental health courts works, because when people believe their cases are handled fairly, they are more likely to participate in treatment, he said. In contrast, outcomes of distributive justice are about winning or losing.
Julian listed four elements for procedural justice:
1) Voice: The defendant’s side is heard.
2) Respect: The defendant is treated with respect before, during and after.
3) Neutrality: The decision is unbiased and consistent.
4) Understanding: The defendant understands the decision, the reasons for it and how laws were applied.
A defendant is more likely to accept a just decision, increasing compliance, decreasing future violations and reducing the court docket, he said. The Red Hook community court offers treatment and has social workers on site.
He reported a 10 percent reduction in recidivism—repeat offenses—over two years and that reduction has been sustained in subsequent years.
That drop resulted in two-to-one dollar savings, because of increased compliance, he said.
Julian promotes evidence-based practice to limit the influence of bias using qualitative and quantitative evidence, he said.
He said the current understanding of “criminogenic risk factors” overlooks the trauma and victimization of an offender.
“Jail is criminogenic, increasing the odds that people reoffend, so we need to look at alternatives that assure public safety through creative non-custodial approaches,” said Julian, calling for diverting more people into mental health and addiction treatment.
Jennifer Kim, the policy and field director for the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif., described advocacy to advance racial and economic justice by ending mass incarceration.
The center helped close five of California’s eight abusive youth prisons through its Books Not Bars campaign and helped support passage of Proposition 47 to change some felonies into misdemeanors, helping people avoid felony convictions that would inhibit employment.
Growing up in Southern California, the child of Korean immigrants, she was 12 when African-American Rodney King was beaten, and police were acquitted. Her father was beaten in subsequent riots and suffered from robberies. She decided to go to law school to be a prosecutor, believing that the only way to achieve public safety was to lock people up.
When she was in law school, another law student challenged that assumption. So did a film by the Ella Baker Center on the failure of the justice system.
“I had not understood the racial and fiscal basis of policies,” she said. “To transform injustices, we must organize to insure dignity and opportunities for low-income people and people of color.”
In the prisons that Books Not Bars closed, youth faced daily violence and isolation. They held youth—91 percent youth of color—from ages 13 to 23. They had an 81 percent recidivism rate and cost $200,000 per youth per year, she said.
“The system is an abysmal failure. California has the most powerful prison guard union,” Jennifer said, identifying a primary entity blocking reform. “Any other business with an 81 percent failure rate would not stay in business.”
Books Not Bars organized families, convinced lawmakers of policy needs and educated the public through media advocacy. They held protests, marches and vigils.
“Two youth in solitary confinement committing suicide on the same day drew attention and action,” she said. “California locks up youth for longer than any other state because of ‘time adds’ based on behavior.
“Books Not Bars advocated shuttering of the youth prisons in favor of investment into education and alternatives to incarceration,” she said. “From 2000 to 2014, spending rose 19 percent for higher education, 40 percent for K-12, 99 percent for health and human services, and 130 percent for corrections.
“Through organizing, policy and media advocacy, we can expose abuses, change the narrative and create a culture shift that moves us from the purely punishment model that has devastated our communities,” she said.
She quoted Father Gregory Boyle of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles: “You are so much more than the worst thing you have ever done.”
“We need to learn from our mistakes and talk about solutions,” Jennifer said.
Books Not Bars found power in giving grieving mothers a voice, in having directly-impacted people be at decision-making tables. They also learned about the influence of collective action, using narratives and collaborating with unlikely allies.
“Statistics don’t go viral. Stories do,” Jennifer said. “They have the power to change hearts and minds.”
Smart Justice Spokane Symposium workshops delved into a variety of issues.
“It takes people acting together, said Liz of PJALS in closing.
“The next steps,” she said, “are to share stories, facts and ideas, to share experiences, to contact elected officials and to work with criminal justice officials.”
For information, call 838-7870 or visit www.smartjusticespokane.org.
Copyright © December 2014 - The Fig Tree