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25 groups collaborate for Smart Justice

A coalition of 25 Spokane area organizations has launched Smart Justice Spokane, a campaign to promote reforms in how law enforcement agencies and courts handle non-violent offenders. 

Smart Justice Spokane
Smart Justice Spokane coalition meeting

The goal is to bring Spokane County’s criminal justice system into the 21st century with reforms proven to reduce crime rates while easing the pressure on crowded jails, said Anne Martin, director of Greater Spokane Progress and a spokesperson for the group. By focusing on a person’s needs, they believe more treatment and fewer jail sentences will add public safety value for taxpayers by keeping people in jobs and with their families.

The Smart Justice campaign seeks to end dependence on jail for non-violent, low level offenders, said the Rev. Todd Eklof, pastor of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Spokane. 

“We agree that those convicted of serious and violent crimes need to be in jail.  The question is: what’s the best way to respond to non-violent offenders?” he asked.  “We think the research is clear that problems of many non-violent offenders could have been avoided with earlier intervention and proper treatment.”

Organizations and leaders that have signed on to support the Smart Justice Campaign include pastors, mental health advocates and retired judges.

The campaign was launched in September at a presentation by Douglas Marlowe, a national expert on the advantages of treatment over incarceration, held at the Bing Crosby Theater.  The lawyer, clinical psychologist, and instructor at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Medicine told how reforms, including re-entry courts and alternative sentencing, can improve public safety, strengthen communities and save tax dollars.

Rick Eichstaedt with the Center for Justice said there are some local examples of how alternatives to jail can work, but “we’re not investing in them to anywhere near their level of potential.”

At their September meeting, steering committee members agreed to review some alternatives:  1) a community corrections re-entry center; 2) active community supervision; 3) law enforcement diversion policies; 4) electronic home monitoring; 5) community service opportunities; 6) community problem-solving courts; 7) daily reporting in; 8) early case resolution; 9) specialty courts, and 10) court-date notification by robo calls.

In his 21 years on the bench, retired Spokane District Court Judge Richard “Rick” White learned that there is value in rehabilitation from new therapeutic courts—DUI (Driving Under the Influence) courts, drug courts and mental health courts.  There is value to accelerated processing in many criminal cases—the Same Justice Sooner principle.

From his experience, retired Spokane Superior Court Judge Jim Murphy, who pioneered the county’s drug court in 1996, also emphasizes the effectiveness of alternative sentencing.

“Drug Court was our first attempt at creative alternatives to prosecution,” he said, and the reliance on treatment rather than jail led to a cost savings for taxpayers.

“We had a recidivism—repeat offending—rate of under 10 percent after five years,” he continued. “We were the 11th drug court in the United States and now there are 2,500.  Spokane County and City courts have since instituted DUI, mental health and veterans courts on the same philosophy.  Smart Justice works.”

Consequences of incarceration are visible to community leaders like the Rev. Happy Watkins, pastor of New Hope Baptist Church.

“In our system, jail has affected, but not rehabilitated people,” he said.  “I’ve known people who have gone through the correctional system but didn’t come out better or rehabilitated. They came out even angrier. A Smart Justice system will change that.”

For information, call 624-5657 or 251-1424 email anne@spokaneprogress.org.