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2017 Eastern Washington Legislative Conference

People in prisons need jobs and opportunities when they return to society

Three workshop speakers at the Eastern Washington Legislative Conference offered insights on issues that have impact on criminal justice, racial justice and police accountability.

Kurtis Robinson of the NAACP Spokane Criminal Justice Committee presented statistics on what the community, state and nation face with the costs of mass incarceration and the need to reduce recidivism—reoffending—through jobs.

Gloria Ochoa Bruck, City of Spokane

Participants engage in discussion during conference.

Gloria Ochoa Bruck, director of multi-cultural affairs for the City of Spokane, called for changing laws to hold police accountable to a “reasonable officer’s standard” when they use violence.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich said stable housing, education and jobs will reduce recidivism.

Given that 97 percent of the 2.4 million people in U.S. prisons will re-enter society—with the average length of sentences 15 to 24 months—700,000 are released every year. 

That means 70 million Americans have a criminal record that impedes their ability to find a job.

“Recidivism in that group is 50 to 80 percent,” Kurtis said.  “Of 8,000 released from Washington jails, only 25 percent have a job a year after release.”

“Social conditions contributing to criminal activity include homelessness, poverty, addiction, mental illness and dysfunctional families,” he said, adding that the stigma of a criminal record is a barrier to finding jobs and stable housing, re-traumatizing those released.

The Sentencing Project, which has worked 30 years for a fair, effective U.S. criminal justice system, points to racial disparities in mass incarceration.

 “More than 60 percent in prison are people of color.  Black men are six times and Hispanic men are 2.5 as likely to be in prison as white men,” he said, “and one-tenth of the U.S. population is incarcerated.

“One in nine of all men are likely to be incarcerated, with one in 17 white, one in three black and one in six Latino,” Kurtis reported.  “One in 56 women are incarcerated with one in 111 white women, one in 18 black and one in 45 Latina.”

He said the prisoner class is further alienated because job applications ask if the applicant was “ever incarcerated” for a crime.  A “yes” answer leaves people with substandard housing, employment and education.

“The number of Americans with arrest records could be the 18th largest nation in the world,” Kurtis said.  “Those in U.S. prisons are 5 percent of the world’s population and 25 percent of the world’s prison population.”

He said that recognizing the cost to American society can bring bipartisan solutions. 

Mass incarceration costs $80 billion a year and is a major driver of the U.S. poverty rate, he said. The cost per inmate in the State of Washington is $37,300 a year, he said, funds that could be used for education, drug treatment and vocational training.

Kurtis said the NAACP Spokane advocates a measure on the city and state level to “ban the box,” meaning applicants do not need to say if they ever committed a crime or were in jail on applications. It can come up after the applicant pool has narrowed, in a background check or interview.

Gloria said that the report of the Task Force on the Use of Force by law enforcement officers has resulted in two bills before the legislature.

She said the police shooting a mentally ill man in Pasco was not “a reasonable way” to de-escalate the situation.

In the death of Otto Zehm, she said, the officer used his baton vertically, rather than horizontally, which police are trained to do.

“When we send officers into volatile situations, their lives are at risk, so they should be able to defend themselves,” Gloria said.

The proposed law on use of force would change the standard from using force in malice or bad faith, which are hard to prove, to be based on “a reasonable officer’s standard.”

Was the officer’s action a deviation from training or a mistake? HB 1529 and SB 5073 address this issue.

Another bill, HB 1769, would restore cuts to training budgets, Gloria said, so police departments can afford to send officers for crisis intervention training. 

“As a community advocate, I believe we need a law that is fair and just, and holds police to be accountable, but is not anti-police,” Gloria said.

Sheriff Ozzie reinforced the need for housing, education and jobs to reduce recidivism.

“Without stable housing, we can’t accomplish the others. When people are stabilized, they can find jobs and improve their skills,” he said.

In 10 to 15 years, many police will be retiring, and there will be many job openings.

Ozzie calls for training young people so they have the skill sets to fill the openings.

He and other sheriffs in the state are focusing on early childhood education so more students graduate.  Students struggle, he believes, because so many families are broken.

Because he believes it’s important to provide more training for trades, Ozzie, the Rev. Happy Watkins and others met with the construction industry to develop an apprentice program to teach at-risk youth construction trades.

For information, call 209-2425.

Copyright © March 2017 - The Fig Tree