Spokane County To Use MacArthur Foundation Grant To Continue Reforms

Jan 31, 2019

Spokane County District Court Judge Tracy Staab talks with a defendant and her lawyer in March 2018.

Spokane County has another big check in the mail from the MacArthur Foundation — that’s the same organization that periodically awards genius grants. The foundation is sending another $1.9 million to Spokane County. That’s on top of a $1.7 million award in 2016.

“That’s a grant to safely reduce jail size. We’ve talked about the emphasis on safety. This is really about improving public safety and public health,” said Maggie Yates, administrator of the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council.

The county is participating in the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, which is aimed at finding new ways to reduce the number of people incarcerated in American jails. That’s certainly an issue in Spokane, even after years of reform. The challenge provides money to about 50 local jurisdictions around the country to implement new ideas to make their criminal justice systems more fair, safe and effective.

“We know that the misuse of our jails results in detrimental impacts for the individual and the individual’s family that’s been incarcerated, the health of the community, the interests of the taxpayers, et cetera," Yates said. "We have worked diligently at the city and the county and with community partners to identify strategies that will help us ensure that our criminal justice system is really functioning fairly and equitably and effectively.”

She says the goal with the new grant during the next two years is to reduce by 15% the number of people incarcerated in the jail and at Geiger.

Maggie Yates: “We identified six different strategies. One is case processing or improving case processing. That’s the process at the point from which an individual is arrested to when their case in adjudicated. We’re working with national consultants at the National Center for State Courts to implement reforms across all three courts: municipal, district and superior court. Superior court had worked with NCSC previously through MacArthur, through the Safety and Justice Challenge, so they’ll continue to implement the reforms that were recommended by the consultants and then we’ll bring along municipal court and district court to make sure that that process is fair, efficient and equitable. A second strategy is improving data collection, analysis and transparency. We’ll do this, in part, by hiring a full-time data analyst to help us really make sense of the criminal justice data that we are collecting or need to be collecting. This is both to be transparent for the community and our community members and also to make sure that the individuals across the system are able to really understand how we are functioning and where our reforms are taking root and where we need to be doing things better. We’ll also continue the implementation of the public safety assessment, which is that pre-trial risk assessment tool that will help our judges gather relevant information in order to release people pre-trial back to the community where they can continue to care for their families, pursue and maintain employment and also to seek treatment, if that’s appropriate for them. We are also continuing diversion efforts out of the prosecutor’s office and supported by pre-trial services as well. We’re actually piloting a new diversion program out of the prosecutor’s office that will be profiling. So before charges are ever filed against an individual, there will be a pilot to divert that individual away from the criminal justice system. We are also going to pilot a racial equity tool and continue our racial equity initiatives and again, we are continuing to work with our community partners and leaders to deepen our relationships and deepen the community engagement around these issues.”

That community engagement piece includes two projects. One will use people who have been incarcerated, who have navigated the system, to provide peer support for people who have recently entered it.

“Really, if we don’t help individuals stabilize after contact with the criminal justice system, inevitably they will struggle to free themselves from this web," Yates said. "So individuals who have been incarcerated will be able to go through this training and receive their peer support specialist certification to then help other individuals navigate the system upon their release or maneuvering through the criminal justice system as they face charges.”

Carmen Pacheco-Jones is involved in the planning of this program. She’s excited that people with substance abuse or mental health issues will be diverted and given a chance to stabilize their lives.
 
“Individuals will receive a $15-an-hour stipend as they’re going through the training program, which leads to that economic stability. We hope to have at least 20 in the first cohort with the understanding that those 20 individuals, once they’re fully trained, each one can have a caseload of up to 25 individuals that they’re walking through or helping navigate the criminal justice system. It really has an expansive view," Pacheco-Jones said. 

The county anticipates using the grant to eventually hire 42 of these peer navigators.

Pacheco-Jones is one of many formerly incarcerated people who have been vocal about where they think changes need to be made. She thinks the new grant may help the county move in the right direction.

“I think it’s really an opportunity to take a deeper look into what is impacting our community, what impacts incarceration, why people are arrested, who has access to diversion programs and who stays in the system longer," she said.

That’s part one of the community piece that will be funded by the new grant.

“There’s a second part of the community engagement grant. Carmen spoke to the peer navigator piece, but there’s another piece which is designed to engage the broader community,” said Mary Lou Johnson, another community member who participated in the grant process. “The racial equity committee had been holding community meetings quarterly. With the support of this grant, we’d like to make those monthly meetings.

"I think about them as a ‘learn and listen’ session, so we want to bring in system professionals. We want to bring in the broad community. That could be impacted people or it can be people who are not directly impacted in order to learn from each other and to listen to each other, because every proposal that we have, every program that we think about developing or some of the things that we’re thinking about doing already can be rolled out. They ought to have that input from the community as well as from the system professionals. So being able to do that monthly and having a regular place for that exchange to take place I think is going to be incredible," she said.

Johnson says meetings like that can serve as incubators for new ideas and programs. Those include a new mental health crisis stabilization facility that is planned for the Spokane County government campus.

“It started out as an initiative within the Spokane Alliance," she said. "Our health care team looked at the issue, narrowed health care down to mental health, knew how many people in the jail had mental health issues and then we did research. I remember visiting the Yakima facility that was up and running and working. So now, the city and county have approved that. It wasn’t part of the grant, but hopefully, it’s going to be operational by the end of this year. So that’s a specific place where the community came with a proposal.”

The $1.9 million grant is intended to carry the county through another two years. Maggie Yates says it will be the last round of MacArthur Foundation funding and then the county will be tasked with finding ways to fund what’s working.

 

“That’s a grant to safely reduce jail size. We’ve talked about the emphasis on safety. This is really about improving public safety and public health,” said Maggie Yates, the administrator of the county's Regional Law and Justice Council.

Yates says the goal is to reduce by 15% the number of people incarcerated in the jail and at Geiger during the next two years.

This is the third time the foundation has given money to the county during this decade as part of its “Safety and Justice Challenge.” That has funded some programs that have worked and some that have had mixed success. Incarceration levels are still high.

With this grant, Yates says the county will continue its reforms in several areas. That includes changes in all three levels of the court system to decide cases more quickly.

It also includes a project that introduces a peer support program for people who are enmeshed in the system.

“Really, if we don’t help individuals stabilize after contact with the criminal justice system, inevitably they will struggle to free themselves from this web," Yates said. "So individuals who have been incarcerated will be able to go through this training and receive their peer support specialist certification to then help other individuals navigate the system upon their release or maneuvering through the criminal justice system as they face charges.”

The county anticipates hiring 42 of these peer navigators. They’ll be paid $15 an hour to work with people in the system.

Carmen Pacheco-Jones is excited about this program. She’s one of the community members who advised the county for this grant. She says she’s excited that people with substance abuse or mental health issues will be diverted and given a four-month program aimed at stabilizing their lives.

“One, be able to access whatever treatment they need. They will also be able to have training in leadership, in cultural competency, peer support, whatever barriers they’re working against that might inhibit their ability to go out and be that productive member of society that we all want,” Pacheco-Jones said.

The county also plans to use the grant to engage more of the community. Mary Lou Johnson, another community member who participated in the grant process, says public meetings will be held, what she calls ‘listen and learn’ sessions.

“I think community engagement is so important because the community can bring either specific ideas or they can bring general values," Johnson said. "To me, the values that the community will likely be talking about are values of respect, values of equity, values of restoration.”

The one-point-nine million dollar grant is intended to carry the county through another two years. Maggie Yates says it will be the last round of MacArthur Foundation funding. Many of these programs may also influence discussions about whether the county should pursue a new jail.