- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

SPOKANE, Wash. (AP) - Spokane County’s plan to reduce jail overcrowding using a $1.75 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation has the support of Prosecutor Larry Haskell, as long as it doesn’t compromise public safety.

The county has set a goal of reducing the jail population 21 percent over the next three years, while reducing racial disparities.

The bulk of those reductions are expected to occur by adding staff to the county’s pretrial services department, the Spokesman-Review reported. They will also use a new, evidence-based risk assessment tool to decide who can safely be let out of jail before trial.

“Between the two tools I have a reasonable degree of confidence that we’re going to be able to identify people that test out low risk,” Haskell said.

A coalition of city and county officials, including judges, public defenders, prosecutors in county and city courts and jail staff, is working together to implement the grant, which was announced last month.

Two-thirds of jail inmates last year were awaiting trial, compared with just under half in 2012. The average daily jail population last year was 965 people in a facility designed for 620, said Jacqueline van Wormer, the county’s criminal justice administrator.

The grant also is aimed at reducing the percentage of racial minorities in jail. In Spokane County, Native Americans and African-Americans are jailed at seven and 8.5 times the rate of whites, respectively, and they generally have longer stays in jail.

The current pretrial services department provides a report on inmates awaiting trial, which includes criminal history and any ties to Spokane, including family, a job and length of residence. Prosecutors typically use that information in bail decisions.

But that tool is subjective and results in people being held in jail more because of their income than their actual danger to public safety, van Wormer said. A wealthy person accused of a serious crime may be able to post a $250,000 bond with little difficulty.

“Then we have those other individuals that sit in jail on a $1,000 bond” for much less serious crimes, van Wormer said.

Part of the grant will be used for a new risk assessment tool, which is being created by a Washington State University professor and specifically tailored to the Spokane County Jail population. That tool will provide a risk score based on a suspect’s mental health history, criminal past, employment history and other psychological factors.

City Prosecutor Justin Bingham said it’s important to tell the public about the tool’s successes, such as someone being able to keep a job or housing because they’re not in jail.

“Things will happen and people will attack this stuff as being soft on crime,” he said. “At the end of the day, it’s based on analytics.”

Haskell said the county’s pretrial services department is understaffed and uses phone calls rather than in-person visits to check in with suspects awaiting trial. That makes prosecutors reluctant to release people, even if they’re at low risk for reoffending.

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Information from: The Spokesman-Review, http://www.spokesman.com

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