Wednesday, March 13, 2019
NEW DIRECTIONS: Making good on a campaign promise, Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey presented his plan for criminal justice reform to Whatcom County Council this week.
Richey’s platform for change builds on recommendations of the county’s Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force, formed in 2015 to review local criminal justice and behavioral health programs and recommend changes to reduce incarceration of individuals struggling with mental illness and chemical dependency, and to reduce jail use by pretrial screening of defendants who can be safely released. The task force includes a broad range of stakeholders—including representatives from organizations involved in criminal justice and law enforcement, policymakers and members of the public. Richey was elected in November with 55 percent of the vote amid strong wave of public support for alternatives to incarceration.
Perhaps most disturbing of the task force’s findings was an analysis of the jail population that found more than half (59 percent) of inmates detained at the jail were being held without trial—that is, for one reason or another they were unable to secure release. People being held pretrial are legally presumed innocent and awaiting resolution of their cases.
Richey admitted at this early stage his platform for change is mostly aspirational—a high-level examination of the challenges that face the prosecutors office and the wider constellation of criminal and social justice responses—but sketched ways that change is already being considered and implemented in his office.
“This is a nuts-and-bolts platform, this is a vision statement,” Richey admitted, “but the specifics will be coming out soon.
“My goal,” Richey noted in his presentation to Council, “is to reduce the pretrial jail population and save significant tax dollars without compromising community safety. Having people in custody, away from their families and unable to work creates collateral consequences for our community and worsens situations for many. I would like to see people being held in custody only when truly necessary,” he said. “My intention is to reduce the pretrial population in jail by seeking bail only in cases where the individual charged is a danger to the community, interferes with the administration of justice, or is a flight risk. Each individual will be reviewed to ensure bail is appropriate under the applicable standard.”
Richey cited Seattle’s LEAD program—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion—as perhaps the most promising model for early adoption to help reduce county incarceration rates. LEAD was introduced in 2011 when Seattle police officers were given the discretion to connect certain people arrested for drug and prostitution crimes with case workers instead of taking them off to jail. The program contains an inherent admission that a cycle of offense and arrest is inadequate, and seeks instead to meet immediate needs, like food and housing, then work with participants over months or even years to remake their lives through opportunities like job training, education and treatment. The program has since been replicated in 20 cities across the country.
It’s a concept that can be expanded into other areas.
For example, Seattle began experimenting with a provisional licensing program that would allow qualified participants with suspended licenses to drive to and from work during daylight hours in order to remain employed and provide for their families. The program offers a legal remedy for a particular need.
During his campaign, Richey tested a warrant-quashing day, an offer of amnesty for low-level arrest warrants, the majority being for failure to appear for court proceedings. Of those, the bulk are warrants for FTA related to driving with a suspended license. Previous policy from the Whatcom prosecutors’ office classified these FTAs as “bail jumping,” an arrestable offense.
Richey promised to continue to offer warrant-quashing amnesty, perhaps as often as twice a year, for the approximate 12,000 outstanding warrants out in Whatcom County. Yet one can see how decriminalizing FTA DWLS3 would easily wipe out a third of that number.
“My office will continue to work with the public defenders and other relevant stakeholders to refine bail jump policies that are flexible and reduce the need to file bail jump charges where appropriate,” he pledged.
The evolution of crime and criminal offense in Whatcom County (and the wider nation) carries a strong correlation with mental illness and substance abuse, suggesting that a focus on the latter could beneficially and cost-effectively reduce incidence of crime.
For crimes known as shoplift burglaries, or the property crimes and thefts that occur when people steal food and alcohol and other items from local businesses, those charges will be handled as misdemeanors rather than felonies, Richey said. These are crimes of poverty, and they’re stealing because they’re hungry, or because they have a mental illness or addiction, he said.
“Whatcom County deputy prosecutors under my leadership will liberally support the Drug Offender Sentencing Alternative (DOSA) sentencing option,” Richey said. “This sentencing alternative allows defendants battling substance abuse to receive treatment in lieu of incaraceration. These individuals also receive supervision upon their release back into the community to assist in their continued rehabilitation.
“it is time to consider public safety and public health together in understanding the drivers of our jail population,” Richey summarized in his presentation to Council. “Innovative approaches such as working with social services and community health and treatment programs in addressing low-level drug crimes and crimes of poverty will save valuable taxpayer money. I believe Whatcom County and the prosecutor’s office have an opportunity to demonstrate leadership in the national conversation on incarceration and criminal justice reform.”