Why “Supported Release” makes a lot of sense--and how Republicans exploit the misconceptions about how it works
Allow me to get right to the point. As a society we claim to believe that people are “innocent until proven guilty”, but we fail to internalize what that means. As citizens who try hard to avoid involvement with what we refer to as the “criminal justice system” I’m afraid we assume that anyone who gets arrested and put in jail is highly likely to be guilty of a serious crime, that they are part of that “other” that is not us, automatically unworthy of being considered “innocent until proven guilty”.
Until I looked at the local justice system much more closely, my bias was to think of everyone under detention in any facility, including those detained by Spokane County Detention Services, as likely felons. That bias incorrectly colored my understanding of every article I read in local news that touched on our local jail system.
A better civic understanding of our local criminal justice system is key. On the way to this year’s elections we are likely to be pummeled with political ads telling us we in Spokane County should authorize a highly regressive 0.2% increase in the county sales tax to fund a new jail. It behooves us to understand what we are talking about.
Let’s go back to some basic wording. My electronic dictionary points out a usage distinction between the terms jail and prison:
In North America, prison specifically denotes a facility run by the state (in Canada provincial) or federal government for those who have been convicted of serious crimes, whereas jail denotes a locally run facility for those awaiting trial or convicted of minor offenses.
Spokane County Detention Services runs two jails, the Spokane County Jail just south of the County Courthouse and Geiger Corrections Center out near the airport. These are both jails, not prisons. People convicted of a felony are transferred (usually with some lag) into the Washington State prison system run by the Washington State Department of Corrections. (The nearest such prison facility is Airway Heights Corrections Center [AHCC] in, yes, Airway Heights.)
Prisons and convicted felons (for the most part) are NOT what is being talked about in local news articles that discuss the Spokane County jail. Instead, the local jail system (Spokane County Detention Services) mostly houses people awaiting the workings of the local judicial system. I hesitate to use the wording “awaiting trial”, since only about ten percent of criminal cases ever come to a jury trial. The rest are mostly settled in a process designated “plea bargaining” in which the defendant is presented by the prosecutor’s office with a list of threatened charges and the defendant agrees to plead guilty to one or several of the lesser ones rather than risk losing a jury trial.
A majority of those detained in the Spokane County jail system are detained in the system while they await judicial proceedings simply because they cannot “make bail”. For example, as of December 31, 2022, the jail data “snapshot” showed that of the 764 people in detention 507, two-thirds, were “Pre Trial - No Hold”, that is, they were eligible to be immediately released on bond—if they or friends or family could come up with the money to post bond. In contrast, only 59 were “Pre Trial - Hold”, that is, they were held with circumstances that prevented an immediate release on bail. (In the U.S., bond and bail are synonymous.) Only 56 detainees held in the local jail system were already sentenced, most, one presumes, to a term less than a year (the maximum sentence for a misdemeanor) that does not require transfer into the state prison system. (See P.S.)
Bottom line: The majority of the detainees held in the “Spokane County Jail” await the processes of the local judicial system, that is, they are people who are supposed to be “innocent until proven guilty.” Two thirds of them could be out on bail to continue with their lives—if they had the money and a support system.
On January 23, the Spokesman carried an article by Colin Tiernan entitled “Spokane County is about to try a criminal justice reform effort that once seemed doomed.” The article is well worth your attention, but it is inadequate in its depth of explanation (due to space constrains of a paper paper or overly generous assumptions about readers’ familiarity with the system?).
The “criminal justice reform” referred to in the article is the supported release proposal that Maggie Yates, the county’s former regional law and justice administrator, presented “to the [at the time, three] county commissioners [French, Kerns, and Kuney] in the fall of 2021. Her efforts to launch the program stalled, however, following resistance from the prosecutor’s office [read that ‘County Prosecutor Haskell’].” In early 2022 Maggie Yates resigned. Last fall she narrowly lost a bid to unseat long time Spokane County Commissioner Al French.
On the campaign trail last year, French criticized Yates and ran a TV ad that accused her of wanting to give criminals a “get out of jail free card.”
I suppose it is no surprise that French would twist the public’s limited understanding of jail facts to tar his opponent—and then, this January vote in favor of the program she had championed.
Tiernan’s Spokesman article also notes that the proposed supported relief program will be applied (at least initially) only to the “district court” detainees—without explaining what that means. In Washington State district courts (county level) are courts of limited jurisdiction. One of those limitations is that district courts process up to misdemeanor criminal cases, not felonies. (Felony cases are tried in the county’s superior courts.) In the State of Washington misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors are legally defined as crimes carrying a penalty of no more than incarceration for a one year in “the county jail” (and/or a fine), that is, no one convicted in district court winds up in the state prison system. (For more detail see P.P.S. below.)
Mr. Tiernan’s Spokesman article notes that the new supported relief program will apply only to detainees charged with nonviolent crimes, detainees screened by the judge in charge of their case. This is anything but a “get out of jail free card”. Al French’s vile and dishonest attack ad against Maggie Yates in the 2022 election plays on the public’s fear of crime and ignorance of the details of our judicial system. French’s attack ad is as much a part of the Republican playbook as George H.W. Bush’s vile and misleading “Willie Horton” ads deployed, successfully, against Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis in 1988.
Civic education around the basics of our legal system is the antidote to this Republican fear mongering ad tactic—as is knowledgeably calling out their bullshit. I know this because, sadly, my own basic grasp of how the local judicial system works and who is detained in the Spokane County jail system was very rudimentary. Reading news articles and hearing TV news clips without further explanation left me little the wiser.
Since Spokane County Commissioners Al French and Josh Kerns took it upon themselves (last December when they still had the power between them to do such a thing) to vote in a jail funding referendum for the fall 2023 ballot, Republicans will inevitably fear monger to the public this year about how our jail system works. Let’s work ahead to counter that tactic.
Keep to the high ground,
P.S. If you’re doing the math you noticed that on December 31, 2022, snapshot I didn’t account for 142 detainees. Click here to see the details if you’re curious. Eighty-nine were federal detainees.
P.P.S. For a sample of what crimes in Washington State constitute a misdemeanor or gross misdemeanor (the charges that may be eligible for supported release) read this explanation pasted from a west side attorney’s website:
Misdemeanors are further classified as gross misdemeanors and simple misdemeanors.
Simple: You can be charged with a misdemeanor for crimes like petty theft, disorderly conduct, trespassing, vandalism, and possessing more than an one ounce (but less than 40 grams) of marijuana. These crimes carry a maximum of 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
Gross: Driving Under the Influence (DUI) can be charged as a gross misdemeanor rather than a felony if it is a first offence. Other charges of this magnitude include reckless driving and domestic assault. Gross misdemeanor crimes carry a maximum of 364 days in jail and up to a $5,000 fine.
However, these maximums are set as a limit for sentencing rather than a guaranteed punishment. Your specific penalties will depend on the seriousness of the offense and your previous criminal history.