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Spokane Group Questions Decisions Related To Reducing Jail Population

Doug Nadvornick/SPR

During the last few weeks, Spokane County judges have been reviewing the cases of people who are incarcerated at the county jail and the Geiger Correctional Center. Many of the inmates held on lower-level charges were released on their own recognizance as a way to reduce their exposure in case someone in the jail tests positive for the coronavirus.

Members of the Spokane Smart Justice Coalition, including Carmen Pacheco-Jones, applaud that.

“Because we knew if we could get the individuals out prior to contracting or being exposed to Covid-19 that we had a better chance of succeeding of minimizing the impact of the virus," Pacheco-Jones said.

She is a member of the executive committee for the Smart Justice Coalition and one of the signatories to a letter that thanked county authorities for moving quickly to reduce the number of incarcerated people from more than 900 to the 500 range.

And then it criticized them for its method of deciding who was released and who stayed.

“With a recent conversation that I had with someone in the judicial system, who had done a recent tour of the jail, their response is they were taken aback, that as they walked through, amid these mass releases, they were startled by who was left behind. That was African-American, indigenous and non-English speakers," Pacheco-Jones said.

Signers of the letter say Spokane’s criminal justice system has long had a bias against people of color. They say a study by the Burns Institute found that, in 2014, for every white adult incarcerated in Spokane County, there were seven Blacks, six Native Americans and almost two Latinos.

Kurtis Robinson, president of the Spokane chapter of the NAACP, says the county had a chance to address that when it considered whom to release.

“So, we would have preferred that they do what we’ve been asking for, which is use a high racial equity lens," Robinson said. "When they were letting people out, they would have taken racial data. They would have looked at who they were letting out and, probably beforehand, sat down and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to take 20 people. What are the racial demographics of these 20 people? Let’s make record of that and then let’s make sure we’re doing it proportionally, rather than disproportionally, so that we’re letting people out according to the proportion of the jail.”

County officials say the result of the culling process did not lead to a big change in the demographics of inmates.  

Kurtis Robinson is skeptical about that. He wishes the county would make public the demographic information of who was released so that people can see for themselves.

“Not a year after the pandemic over, but hard, real-time data. ‘Hey, we let out,’ or ‘We’ve done this, we’ve done that’ and here’s the data about what we’ve done,'" he said.

Maggie Yates, the administrator of the county’s Law and Justice Council, says county officials have used money from a multi-million dollar McArthur Grant to study racial inequities in the county system.

“So it has been a central component of our work and a central component of our conversations, both internally and with community members," Yates said.

And she says the county has provided training to its employees for several years about people’s implicit biases.

“Obviously a lot of our efforts have been stalled as we put a pause on more proactive efforts in order to respond to the public health crisis," she said.

The Smart Justice Coalition’s letter hit a sore spot with Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich.

“When I take a look at the numbers that were used in the letter, for every white adult detained, there’s seven-point-one African Americans detained, that’s very misleading to put out in that way. It’s a typical way, for some reason, activists have chosen to paint this picture. The problem is we don’t live in a utopian society," Knezovich said.

He says the conversation does not advance simply by calling the system racist. He acknowledges there are racial disparities within Spokane’s criminal justice system, but he says they are part of a bigger problem and he calls on Smart Justice Spokane to come to the table with solutions.

“Until society starts dealing with, in my opinion, three major issues, that is, education, opportunities, job opportunities and housing opportunities, we’re going to have people in high-risk categories, people who live in the marginal economic brackets, always going to be put at a disadvantage and we have to find a way to fix that," Knezovich said.

He says that means having honest discussions that people don’t seem to want to have.  

Honest discussion is something Carmen Pacheco-Jones says she welcomes. With all of the upheaval caused by the coronavirus, she says it’s time for people to reconsider their positions.

“Let’s continue to acknowledge who we lock up and why we lock them up. Let’s begin at the point of contact with the law enforcement and how overpolicing in areas where communities of color live or stop and frisk or driving while black, all of those things that are just embedded in policy. Let’s address that," she said.

LIVE: You can find the Smart Justice Spokane letter here.