Safety and Justice Challenge Part III: Bail Reform Flames Out in Spokane

As part of our continued work across the country investigating the Safety and Justice Challenge which is funding jurisdictions with grant money from the MacArthur Foundation, we set out to ask one basic question…is it working?

This time we took a look at Spokane, Washington.  With community groups like the ACLU and others complaining that Spokane County is not releasing information on whether the grant process is working, we decided to take a look ourselves.  Did the Challenge accomplish the goals it intended?  We issued open records requests to all of the Challenge pilot sites to find out.

With $1.75 million of MacArthur funding in hand, officials in Spokane fully expected to succeed.  In partnering with the Pretrial Justice Institute and the MacArthur Foundation, the following was posted on the Pretrial Justice Institute’s website:

“Having access to empirical evidence can assist judges in the difficult task of making informed release decisions,” said Spokane Municipal Court Judge Mary Logan, President of the District and Municipal Court Judges’ Association. “It could curb over-incarceration pretrial if we are able to make those decisions better informed with a multitude of readily available tools such as risk assessments.”

To find out it if worked or not, we were able to get information regarding the first years’ worth of results in Spokane County.  Of course, that did not come from Spokane County, it came instead from information we received that was sent by the MacArthur Foundation to various pilot site jurisdictions.  As transparent as the Safety and Justice Challenge purports to be, we wonder why this information isn’t readily available on their website, by request, or at all for that matter.

So far, jail statistics indicate the population has held relatively steady for the past couple of years, and pulling out statistics on racial disproportions has taken longer than expected, says Jacquie van Wormer, a criminal justice professor who has been heavily involved in the grant work.

“The data exists in these siloed database systems,” she says. “We collect so much data, but it’s collected to hold records, not for the purpose of analysis. That’s a whole different process.”

However, in the case of Spokane County, we can sort of understand why the results have not been released: they are absolutely, completely, and totally abysmal.

Let’s start with the basics: the jail population increased by 10.3%, and the pretrial population increased by an earth shattering 16.9%.  That is really, really bad.

Of course, you can get on the County’s website and figure out that the program is failing and doomed to utter and complete failure:  Spokane County Performance Indicators

The promise of the Challenge was also that racial bias in the system was going to be dramatically reduced, creating a new racial utopia that would end bias in the criminal justice system.

Along that line of thinking, the MacArthur Foundation helped Spokane with the deployment of a special “Racial Equity Toolkit,” to just go right on out and get that problem of racial bias solved.  Pretrial Justice Institute Executive Director Cherise Burdeen in fact said she was “excited by the idea” that the workgroup had concerns of “racial disparities” and was “mindful of those issues.”  Burdeen was equally excited about Washington State joining her 3DaysCount program because this was just the type of jurisdiction that represented best practices in these areas.  On Burdeen’s website was a press release about how fantastic this all is, noting that she was partnering with the Washington State Minority and Justice Commission in these efforts.

Sadly for the residents of Spokane, we must report that the results are paltry and border on insulting for all of the hubris-driven boasting about care for racial bias and a plan to actually do something about it.

For the misdemeanor jail population, the racial disparity decreased just slightly from 2.0 African-American to whites ratio to 1.92, a decrease in the ratio of a mere 4%.  For felonies, the drop was slight from 2.13 to 2.06, a decrease in the ratio of 3.3%.

Unfortunately, the jail booking ratio increased from 1.78 to 1.86, an increase in the ratio of 4.5%. So, while there have been some changes in racial disparities, some positive and some negative, it is hard to argue that the results are anything but insignificant and that any gains are really lost due to the fundamental increases in the pretrial jail population since the grant started.

Let’s not forgot one other key fact according to the MacArthur Foundation: the County spent $1.2 million in county taxpayer funds to put all of this together.  This was in addition to spending MacArthur Grant dollars on this project of $1.75 million, for a total of $2.95 million.  Of course, we have to also the increases in incarceration that occurred.  The MacArthur data showed that with the average daily population increase, at a rate of $75 per jail bed day, the County has lost $2.518 million in additional jail bed day costs.  The result…$5.468 million in to increase incarceration by 10%.

Again, we harken back to basics—a ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  In this case, these dollars invested in other programs to reduce crime and racial disparities in the criminal justice system could have created a net positive return of $88.25 million if invested properly.  Instead, Cheryl Tofrud hired three new employees to get these results, and bragged about getting to hire three more.  She did tell everyone one other key fact.  This was an attempt to move to the so-called no-money bail system:

“It’s moving away from the imposition of financial conditions to get out of jail,” Tofsrud said of the new system. “It will be based on risk, rather than the ability to post a bond that isn’t going to do anything to protect the community.”

Of course, all of these stellar results were achieved also by using a new computer bail algorithm, that, we have to say, really got it done in Western Washington.  The price tag for the new computerized “Judge Algorithm?” —$70,000—a little icing on the bail reform fiasco cake.


Results In: Bail Reformer MacArthur Foundation Spending Millions to Increase Mass Incarceration in the Palmetto State


MacArthur Safety and Justice Challenge, Part II; Saint Louis Increases Pretrial Incarceration 21.1% in Year One

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