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Regional News

Judge Maryann Moreno Talks About Spokane County Judicial System

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Maryann Moreno
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This month, we’re talking with a few of the people who oversee the Spokane County criminal justice system to gauge where it is as we enter 2019. We’ve talked with County Commissioner Al French, who is trying to prepare a measure for the November ballot to fund a new jail. Last week, we talked with Maggie Yates, who administers the Regional Law and Justice Council, which includes police, court officials and others in the system. Today, we meet Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno, who is a member of that council.

Moreno has worked in the county’s legal system for about 35 years. She was a public defender before she became a judge in 2003. We asked her about some of the work being done in the courts to make them more efficient. In particular, we asked whether she’s seen any effect from an initiative by the public defender’s office to use a new texting system called Uptrust. It allows public defenders to text their clients to remind them about their court appointments.

Maryann Moreno: “My understanding, at least from the public defenders, is they like it. Their lawyers like it and it’s being utilized every day, all of the time. We don’t have a real good way to collect data. We have been manually collecting data from some of our pretrial dockets and, for some reason, there has been a significant decline in failures to appear, meaning people are coming to court. Can we attribute that specifically to Uptrust? I don’t know. I like to think so, but I don’t know. We’re doing better. If we do better in FTAs then they’re not going to jail and the jail overcrowding isn’t as bad.”

Moreno says a Superior Court committee is also implementing reforms recommended specifically for the county by the National Center for State Courts. The first priority is to reduce the system of delays that continue cases for months before going to trial. Sometimes lawyers come to court not prepared and they ask for a continuance and a judge grants it. Meanwhile, their client and the attorneys on the other side are kept in limbo.

Maryann Moreno: “We don’t want to hold lawyers up in court waiting and so we’re working on a system to reduce that time. Obviously if they’re in court waiting to do something they can’t be working their cases. The reason why that’s important is that the more an individual is required to come back to court, the more likelihood they won’t come back to court. If they don’t come back to court, there will be a bench warrant, they’ll go to jail. That is one piece. The second piece of that is that victims want finality and resolution and so, if you’re home is burglarized and you have to wait a year to find out what’s going to happen and whether or not you’re needed in court or whether there’s going to be restitution, that doesn’t seem to be very fair at all. So, working with the public defender and the prosecutor and my judges, who are fully onboard, we’ve devised a system that we hope can reduce that long lag time to case processing.”
Doug: “Last time I was here talking with you, I was asking you about legal financial obligations.”

Those are the court fees automatically imposed on people who are convicted or who plead guilty to offenses, at least 800 dollars. Courts could charge up to 12% interest on outstanding balances, leaving many people who are incarcerated or released with heavy debt loads. A new state law changing some of those obligations went into effect in Washington last year.

Doug: “Are you seeing any effects from that yet?
Maryann Moreno: “I know that all of our judges are following the law and it’s quite simply letting folks off the hook from having to pay large sums if they simply don’t have that money. A big piece of that is the 12% interest doesn’t accrue right away. Once we sentence these people, we don’t see them again so whether or not there’s been better collection or better payment is probably something better directed to the clerk.”
Doug: “For you in the Superior Court, what are the most important things that you really would like to take care of?”
Maryann Moreno: “There’s a lot of things we would like to do. We are down a judge and we’ve been down a judge for a little while and so it’s really hard to take off when you’ve got one full-time judicial figure gone. I’m very excited about our case processing. It’s been something that I’ve wanted to do basically since I’ve been on the bench. I think it’s the piece that’s been missing from our criminal reform. So I’m really excited about it and I’m hoping that it’s going to show some really great results. For example, some of our cases that are not very significant in terms of needing a lot of legal work, those should be done in four months and instead these cases are sitting for 12 months and sometimes, we have judges waiting for trials that don’t come. It will be much better use of judicial resources if we can fill a judge’s time. That’s not to say they don’t have other things to do. But we’re ready, willing and able to start trials, but they’re not happening. So I’m excited about getting more trials done and getting people moved through the system quicker.”

We turned to the bigger picture and asked her to talk about changes within the entire criminal justice system in the county.

Maryann Moreno: “We started to see a sea-change in the way we do business back in about 2010 or 2011. I was the presiding judge at the time and I served about four years. It was at that time that the Blueprint for Reform was first established with a full review of all of our courts and all of our different departments, District Court, Superior Court, prosecutors’ office, pre-trial services, public defenders’ offices, with some good input from the citizens. My recollection of it at the time was that it was designed to try to assist in contemplating the building of a new jail. The building of a new jail was believed to be necessary because our Geiger facility was going to be closing. It enabled us to sit down and look at all of our systems and to see if we could do a better job and if we needed a jail and, if so, how big did we need that jail to be?”
Doug: “What were some of the most important findings when that work was done?”
Maryann Moreno: “It really gave everybody an opportunity to understand exactly who it is that we are incarcerating. Who is it exactly that is sitting in our jail? Secondly would be, do a lot of those people really need to be in jail? If you look at the statistics now, our jail is 75-85% pre-trial population, meaning these are people who have been arrested for a crime, but who innocent, they haven’t been found guilty yet and they’re simply waiting for trial. Most of them are held on a bond, which is a bond that they cannot afford to post. Really, not much changed from 2010. That was the same situation then. So we tried to develop strategies as to how to reduce the jail population, which we’ve been working on now, nine years, almost 10 years.”
Doug: “Is it a bad thing that 75-85% of the jail population is people who haven’t had their trials?”
Maryann Moreno: “I think it’s a bad thing when the only reason why people are in jail is because they can’t afford to post their bond. Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly some individuals in our community who are dangerous and they do need to be held, the individuals who are there for violent crime. But that’s not the majority of the jail population. These are individuals who are there on property crimes, drug crimes, misdemeanor crimes and are simply high needs, meaning they never come to court when they should and have no place to live.”

Moreno says judges now know more about the circumstances of the people who are before them.

Maryann Moreno: “Our thinking years and years ago were they these are people that just did bad things. And I, at least, didn’t have a real good understanding of really who they are and what motivated them. Now after all these years, I understand that most of these folks have other issues that have nothing to do with being bad people. They are generally impoverished. They are generally drug-addicted. They have significant mental health issues. And while that doesn’t excuse their behavior, it explains their behavior. My thought process is now that, if we can help an individual with those issues that they have, it’s going to make the likelihood of them being good citizens and not coming back to the jail much better.”
Doug: “Is your perception of the others in the system, the public defenders, the prosecutors, the police officers, the county commissioners, are they thinking a lot more about this than they used to?”
Maryann Moreno: “Oh absolutely. I will say, going back to 2010, when we first started some of the reforms that were recommended in the Blueprint for Reform, to have judges sitting at the table with prosecutors and public defenders and detectives and other law enforcement was totally unheard of. It took quite awhile for individuals to wrap their brains around how every individual at the table fits into the system. We have had a very strong commitment from law enforcement. We have had, most recently, a very strong commitment from our county commissioners. The criminal justice arena was not part of their daily discussion until all of these reforms came into play. All of them, have been very strong proponents for the work that we’re doing. One way that it’s changed is we also have, at that table, members of the community. That’s something that’s never been done before. Those folks are probably the most valuable people. Some of them have been incarcerated previously. They are of color and they have been there and done that and they can tell us a lot more than we will ever know about some of our reforms.”
Doug: “Are there things that jump out at you that you learn from their experiences?”
Maryann Moreno: “It’s not real tricky and it’s not real complicated. It’s the humanitarian piece of this. It’s the humanitarian aspect of considering somebody who is incarcerated or someone who is in front of you as an individual who has the same needs and the same desires and the same wants as we all have.”
Doug: “There’s talk now about a new jail. Where do you think the county is with regard to that? Is it too soon? Is it time?”
Maryann Moreno: “I was in the periphery of the movement previously back in 2010 to start thinking about a new jail. At that time people had a lot of good ideas about what a new jail should look like. That was sort of taken off the table because we were trying to reform our system enough so that we could have a better understanding of how big of a jail is needed and what sort of programming is needed inside the jail. The thought was that it would be a facility that didn’t just house people, but tried to rehabilitate people, to teach them a trade, to give them treatment, to deal with their mental health issues. Those are the same sort of discussions we’re having now. I am not one of the insiders in any decision to build a new jail. I understand that the facility, as it sits now is not the quality facility that people would like to see. We all know that we need programming in jail. We all know that many people in our jail have mental health issues, have drug abuse issues, are real high needs people. We recognize if there’s going to be a new facility, it’s got to be a humane facility. It’s got to be a place where people will be able to rehabilitate somewhat. And it needs to have a re-entry piece that will assist an individual in getting back out into the community. I think what the community wants is to be safe. The more that we can give an individual, when we’ve got their attention, the better off the community is.”

Maryann Moreno has been a Spokane County Superior Court judge since 2003.