Crime & Safety, Olympia

City seeks to reform its criminal justice system

Goal is equity for all its citizens


The Olympia City Council, during ongoing discussion on forming more equitable public safety policy, formed a three-person committee to identify immediate changes that could improve all people’s interactions with the justice system.

While no definite policy changes were identified during a sprawling two-hour discussion Tuesday evening, council members continually expressed interest in finding ways to improve municipal justice system policy. The conversation has been brewing since protesters began to continually gather in the city, demanding change — or outright abolition — of a justice system that disproportionally affects BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) individuals.

As members of the Committee of Diversity and Equity continue work toward an oft-discussed Social Justice and Equity Advisory Commission, which is currently slated to be appointed by June 2021, the new ad hoc committee would focus on “low-hanging fruit” policy that could be more immediately implemented.

“This is a topic that is really complex,” said Nancy Campbell, a professional facilitator with 40 years of experience in justice reform. Campbell facilitated the council’s work session Tuesday and has worked with the council in mapping out how to approach equity issues.

During the session, Campbell urged council members to focus on their goals in achieving equity, and identifying policy that was within their purview to change. Without going into specifics, she said there were certain changes that could be made that wouldn’t burden the city budget — a point she made after some members noted the formation of the all-new committee was coinciding largely with city budget discussions.

Ultimately, the ad hoc committee, comprised of Mayor Cheryl Selby and councilors Jim Cooper and Clark Gilman, would work to identify best practices while looking at data and speaking with city employees in other departments. Selby said the committee would keep its goals and scope narrow. They will meet with the council for ongoing work sessions, and multiple times stressed the importance of speaking with community members. Campbell pointed out that as the committee dug into equity issues, it would likely start to form a list of goals that could then be sent on to the equity commission when it is formed next year. The equity commission will be looking at bigger-picture issues.

At its core, the issue at-hand hinged on how to lower recidivism rates among people accused of committing crimes in the city. The longer someone spends in the justice system, the harder it is for them to rejoin society. That concept is formed largely by recent research that indicates modern policing and incarceration practices are often detrimental, especially to BIPOC individuals.

“We have better research. For instance, we know … for every day you have someone in jail, you increase the recidivism rate,” said Campbell. This notion goes against the tough-on-crime practices of decades past that encouraged harsh punitive practices.

“Like most jurisdictions … not as bad as many, but you’ve still got it, you disproportionately arrest Brown and Black-bodied men, and some women, too,” Campbell told the council. She said over a 4-5 year period the number of Black men arrested in the city accounted for between 10 and 15 percent of jail bookings, while they represent roughly 2.8 percent of the population. She also noted that that information wasn’t readily available. Finding those numbers required research that, she said, should have been on-hand.

The formation of the ad hoc council has been the latest in ongoing conversations on equity that have echoed through meeting rooms across the nation. A long-lasting pattern of police officers killing unarmed Black people have sparked protests and calls for justice the world over.

Locally, and in addition to the formation of the Social Justice and Equity Commission, Olympia city officials committed to hiring a police auditor to ensure fair and just investigations into police conduct. The council earlier this month adopted a resolution expanding protection and services to BIPOC transgender and non-binary people, who are disproportionately victims of violence and economic hardship.

Also in September, North Thurston Public Schools passed a resolution strengthening the district’s commitment to equal treatment to all students. 


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