Do people of color, low income, or with drug or mental health issues get equal treatment in our criminal justice system? Do police in our community use best practices? Do we know if our justice system is effective or efficient?
The answers to these questions are: we don’t know. But we should know so we can make the justice system more just for everyone. We should know so we can strategically add best practices and prune those that aren’t working. We should know when we must make budget cuts due to COVID-19.
Here’s one example of an important question:
Currently the black population in the County jail is 14% while the Census Bureau reports our County population of black or African Americans is 3.6%. What does this disparity mean? The difference may be from the way ethnicity is tallied, or it could be from racial bias. Unless we track vital indicators of our justice system, we may miss real problems and act on false ones.
Our courts, police, jails, prosecutors, and public defenders work together in a complex system but they are administered independently. Together, they are the biggest discretionary expense our local governments have. The County and cities review and adjust agency budgets at budget time; the rest of the year, the justice agencies operate autonomously.
To their credit, the various justice agencies do coordinate and innovate cooperatively.
Therapeutic courts proactively help defendants address drug, family, and mental health issues. The County has developed new programs like Pretrial Services and is trying to safely divert people from jail. The County’s Innovative Justice group meets monthly to coordinate on new projects. Olympia began a Community Court, and new policing initiatives to help the most vulnerable more humanely and effectively. More recently, the County and cities are discussing how to share rather than duplicate jail space.
To return to our earlier question, we don’t know why the proportion of black people in jail is so much higher than the county average. How many other questions are there that we don’t even know to ask?
Our local officials are considering various changes to make our justice system more equal. Without systemic understanding, these are likely to be piecemeal approaches that may not add up to real change.
We need countywide, professional coordination and oversight of our justice system. Spokane County and other jurisdictions around the country have established coordinator positions to help manage their complex justice systems. Locally, we have a model for interagency coordination in the Treatment Sales Tax program, which distributes tax revenue to reduce justice involvement of people with mental health and drug issues.
The County is considering adding a Law and Justice Regional Program Manager to the next budget. If we already had that Program Manager position, we’d be much better prepared to make those cuts. We’d also better know how to modify the system to make it more equal, more efficient, and more effective. It isn’t too late to start being smart about managing our justice system.
Community Representative, Thurston County Law and Justice Council
Rev. Carol McKinley
Associate Minister, Olympia Unitarian Universalist Congregation