Thurston County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim shared his plan for criminal justice reform Wednesday at the Thurston County Chamber’s monthly forum.
But first, he briefly addressed the elephant in the room: The May 21 Olympia police shooting and his recent decisions about charges against two black men who were shot by a white police officer in west Olympia.
Tunheim decided not to charge Officer Ryan Donald, but to charge the two men — Andre Thompson and Bryson Chaplin — with two counts of second-degree assault for allegedly threatening Donald. Chaplin also will face a fourth-degree assault charge for allegedly throwing beer at a supermarket clerk earlier the night of the shooting.
News of the charges has led to protests in downtown Olympia, and Tunheim has been in the hot seat. Demonstrators who were angry about the charging decision staged a sit-in Tuesday at Tunheim’s office and demanded a meeting with the prosecutor.
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At Tuesday’s Chamber forum at the Red Lion Hotel, Tunheim praised the dedication of local law enforcement as well as his staff for how they have handled the case and its aftermath. He also said he would be speaking more about the police shooting at future public events.
One thing he told the audience about the shooting was that the event happened in about three minutes, yet it has been analyzed for hours and hours.
“Decisions were made within seconds or a fraction of a second,” Tunheim said. “We all need to understand and appreciate that viewpoint a little bit when we talk about this kind of event.”
His main topic at the forum, however, was criminal justice reform in Thurston County and beyond. The county prosecutor is pushing for less-expensive alternatives to jail and prison, especially for offenders dealing with mental illness or substance abuse. He said these alternatives can reduce the likelihood of reoffending.
The county’s effort will be called the Innovative Justice Initiative.
“The criminal justice system needs to evolve,” Tunheim said. “It’s about trying to improve the results of the criminal justice system and do it in a way that’s far less expensive than just locking people in a cage.”
One tool that can help with this effort in Thurston County is a mental health triage center, which is slated to open in April. Tunheim said a triage center can accept people who are experiencing a crisis and keep the jail beds open for more dangerous criminals. Ultimately, the goal is to help address the underlying conditions that lead to criminal behavior.
“Are they really a person who needs to go in the mental health system?” Tunheim asked. “Or are they a person that needs to go in the criminal justice system?”
Other reform proposals include using Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD), a pilot program originating in King County that addresses low-level drug and prostitution crimes. LEAD sends offenders to community-based treatment and support services, according to the program’s website. Another proposal is to enhance pre-trial services in order to assess people’s risks and needs, then create a plan of action from the start.
“Unless they’ve committed a serious crime,” said Tunheim, “sooner or later, they’re coming back out.”