A Tale From One Spokane Candidate Forum
With the November election approaching next week, candidates are working to convince undecided voters to cast ballots for them. Tonight [Monday], the two people running for Idaho’s open First District Congressional seat will debate on statewide public television.
Leading up to this point, civic, neighborhood and industry groups have kept candidates in high demand. But the forums are winding down, especially in Washington, where ballots are already in voters’ hands.
On a recent weekday evening the gym at Spokane’s West Central Community Center looked like a colorful political rally. Signs for more than a dozen candidates hung on the walls while their patrons made their pitches to those assembled.
This audience was interested in the candidates’ views on criminal justice issues. Many listening served time in prisons and jails. And now that they’re free, they’re again eligible to vote, as the candidates were reminded by Layne Pavey from the group that sponsored the forum, I Did the Time.
“What we’re often told by the system itself that we have lost our voting rights forever," Pavey said. "And that is difficult because the very system that should want us to be engaged in pro-social, civic behavior, positive civic behavior, is the system that’s telling us you don’t get a chance when you get out.”
I Did the Time is organizing formerly incarcerated people to advocate for changes to a system they believe relies too heavily on locking people up.
“We truly have been envisioning what the world could be like if we were able to address our trauma, our addictions, our family systems, the harm and the violence that we’ve been experiencing in our lives in a positive way so that can help us transform into people who we feel belong here and want to do good things in this community,” Pavey said.
Democratic state Senate candidate Jessa Lewis tried to connect with the audience on a personal level.
“There was a time in my life where the safest place for my daughter and I was in my car. It was food stamps. It was the social safety net that enabled me, after a time of trauma and challenge, to get back on my feet again," Lewis said. "So I know what it is like for society to want to throw you away and to have to fight for every inch to build a better life for your family.”
Another Democrat, Rep. Timm Ormsby, shared the story of his brush with the law, a guilty plea to a DUI charge in Thurston County earlier this year.
“It was a very eye-opening experience," Ormsby said. "I learned a couple things. One thing is you are not in good shape if you enter that system without means, without resources. And it doesn’t help if you’re a racial minority.”
Some of the candidates talked about the need for better mental health and addiction treatment and services. Others called for more affordable housing and more educational opportunities.
Republican County Clerk Tim Fitzgerald said he has been working since he was appointed in 2014 to make it easier for people to navigate the court system. He says people can now pay their court fees in increments, rather than having to pay their debts all at once, and collection companies no longer hound them.
“I went back to the court to ask the court to allow offenders to have the opportunity to use debit and credit cards to make payments, because everybody else could do it, why can’t they? They need a fair chance and you all have debit and credit cards. The court changed their local court rule and now folks can use their debit and credit cards to make their payments,” Fitzgerald said.
Superior Court Judge Shelley Szambelan pointed to improvements made in Spokane Municipal Court, where she used to preside. She said the court reduced the number of people it sent to jail by 40% during its first two years by creating diversionary programs such as community court.
“I’m very heartened by running into people, when they say you look so familiar and I’m like, uh oh. But they say I remember you, thank you, here’s what I’m doing now. It happens so frequently,” Szambelan said.
She said it’s a reminder that, in a system that often treats people so impersonally, that there are still practitioners who do care. She says people who do have run-ins with the law can still have positive outcomes.