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County Vote to Dissolve, Reform Criminal Justice Reform Council Sparks Outcry

Rebecca White/SPR

The group of community members and public officials who have been meeting for seven years to push for criminal justice reform in Spokane County met for what is likely the last time Wednesday.

During that meeting, many members expressed frustration, saying they’re concerned the new group will not focus on racial equity and have less community input.The County Commissioners voted to dissolve the Spokane Regional Justice Council and form a new, smaller council during their June 29 meeting.

In their final meeting, many members, including Mary Lou Johnson, said they were disappointed.

“This is a giant step backward in collaboration and it again centers power with law enforcement and prosecution. The taxpayers of this county know that public safety absorbs about 70% of the county’s budget, and it appears to me the commissioners do not appear interested in inclusive authentic collaboration on this issue.”

Johnson was the vice-chair of one of the now dissolved sub committees. She said she was also one of several people who was concerned by the commissioners' vote to dissolve the committee.

There was little public notice before the commissioners vote, and the resolutions don’t appear on the consent agenda for that day.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney, who attended the last meeting Wednesday, said the smaller group allows the body to focus on giving recommendations to county commissioners.

“I think you know looking at the different thoughts were out there, I think this was, from my perspective, a compromise to make sure we have the people on the law and justice council who are our subject matter experts who will be able to provide that feedback.”

The new law and justice council will have 16 members. It will include three community members, the county prosecutor and a public defender, and staff from the jail, courts, police and sheriff’s office.

That group will be advised by a five-member racial equity group whose members will be chosen by the larger committee and the county commissioners.

Criminal Justice reform recommendations from both bodies will have to go through a legislative policy committee before being considered by the commissioners. That legislative policy committee will include a county commissioner, the mayors of Spokane and Spokane Valley, the Sheriff and the County Prosecutor.

The original request to shrink the Law and Justice Committee came from a panel of criminal justice experts, a retired judge, defense attorney and former US Attorney, who studied Spokane County’s Criminal Justice system and developed two sets of recommendations seven years apart.

The most recent set of recommendations urged the commissioner to consider a smaller work group, calling the current council “unwieldy.”

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich argued that the community, and racial justice advocates who were on the dissolved council, but will likely not be members of the new council, had squandered their opportunity to by focusing on obstructing a new jail.

He argued he has been working to address racial disparities in the jail population but other committee members stonewalled those due to disagreements on details of those proposals.

“We take this all seriously, racial inequities shouldn’t happen, they need to be addressed. But the thing is, we don’t live in utopia. Until we live in utopia, I can’t guarantee that somebody’s demographic isn’t going to be represented higher than their percentile of the population. Until we deal with the issues of housing, of jobs and education and opportunity, you don’t get there.”

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said he had concerns about the dissolution of the original justice council, saying they had accomplished some reforms and successful programs.

“There was never any indication to me that having 26 people made it unwieldy. We always got through on time, there was never a lack of ability to speak, but we did not have a consensus on how to move forward on some of these thornier issues, which are thorny everywhere. My own belief is that if you have everyone at the table, you can come to a community solution.”

During the meeting Wednesday, Commissioner Mary Kuney said the Board of County Commissioners would work with the Office of Law and Justice to set up the new advisory group.