All across the country, a bipartisan consensus has emerged: It’s time to reform our criminal justice system and find smarter ways to protect the public from crime. No one is proud of the fact that the United States is a runaway global leader in the percentage of our population behind bars, and in the amount we spend to build and run prisons.
Although action in Congress remains elusive, state and local governments are moving ahead with reforms that reduce jail time for nonviolent offenders and address the underlying causes that lead people into the criminal justice system.
State and local governments are also opening their eyes to the “collateral consequences” of jailing people: lost jobs, severely diminished employment prospects, disrupted family lives, and children traumatized by the prolonged absence of a parent. In many cases, a criminal conviction also causes lifetime loss of eligibility for financial aid for the very education and training that could help offenders and their children escape from poverty.
All too often, criminal prosecution for nonviolent crimes drives people deeper into poverty from which they and their children may never escape.
There is another elephant in the room, too: Officials at the Thurston County jail report that 45 percent of people in jail, on work release, or on electronic home monitoring suffer from a mental illness, and 80 percent struggle with substance abuse. This pretty clearly indicates an overwhelming need for a more robust system of community mental health and substance abuse prevention and treatment.
Here in Thurston County, progress on responding to the call for criminal justice reform is gathering steam. The county’s mental health and drug courts, which offer offenders get-out-of- jail cards if they agree to abide by a treatment plan and show up for court dates, have led the way, but other initiatives have been slow to follow.
Last year, County Prosecutor Jon Tunheim announced the advent of the Innovative Justice Initiative, a collaboration between the county commission, the sheriff, the Office of Assigned Counsel, which represents defendants who can’t afford a lawyer, and Tunheim. Together they are working on a variety of reforms to reduce the use of jail time and focus on helping defendants solve the problems that led to their offenses.
One step will be the opening of a10-bed mental health triage center, where law enforcement officers can take people instead of jail. This is progress, though there is already concern that this facility will be too small.
Another step is the creation of a separate pretrial services department that can investigate defendants’ life circumstances, make recommendations for pre-trial release conditions, and offer assistance such as a bus pass or reminder phone calls to ensure that people show up for court.
A third step is a plan to implement Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, an innovative program piloted in King County. It offers people arrested for a minor offense a choice between going to jail or participating in an assessment of their mental health and/or substance abuse problems and learning about treatment opportunities.
These are laudable innovations, but there is much more to do. Excessive fines — and 12 percent interest — contribute to poverty, rearrests and continuing involvement in the criminal justice system. Convictions for driving with a suspended license, which take up to a third of district court calendars, need to be rethought. Bail, particularly for low-level, nonviolent crimes, is supposed to guarantee that people will show up for court, but those who can’t afford it end up stuck in jail while they await trial.
We appreciate the progress our county is making and the collaboration that has made progress possible. But we urge the county to move further and faster to make our system both smart and fair. The longer we wait, the more people who pose no threat to public safety languish in jail.