Spokane County, Washington, has a goal to reduce the jail population 21% over the next three years. The plan, which aims to solve the problem of overcrowding in the county’s jail, also seeks to reduce racial inequalities. It is being financed by a $1.75 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation. Officials plan to use two strategies to carry out the plan: a new, evidence based risk assessment tool to decide who can be let out of jail before trial without risk to the public and additional staffing of the pretrial services department.
In 2015, the average daily number of inmates was 965 in a facility rated to contain 620. Two-thirds of these were awaiting trial rather than serving sentences. Three years earlier, less than one half of the jail population was made up of pre-trial inmates. The racial disparity is evident; in Spokane County, Native Americans are jailed at seven times the rate of whites. African-Americans are jailed at an even higher rate, 8.5 times the rate of whites. Both ethnic groups generally stay longer behind bars as well. The grant should help with both of these concerns.
Currently, the pretrial services department generates a report on pre-trial inmates. This report includes criminal history, job status, length of residence, and family ties in the county. This information is used in bail decisions; however, the report is subjective and often results in longer stays in jail due to the inmate’s income rather than any real public safety concern. People with financial resources may be able to post a large bond immediately to be released, while many poorer individuals may remain in jail on only a $1,000 bond for less serious crimes. The disparity in numbers of minority inmates versus whites is largely due to economic differences.
The new risk assessment tool is more objective, placing emphasis on the severity of the crime, past criminal history, and other facts chosen to measure potential risk to the public. Additional staff in the department will help with gathering this data and compiling it for the prosecutor’s office. The grant is being implemented by a coalition of city and county officials, including prosecutors, judges, public defenders, and jail staff, who are all working together.