Smith: Bigger issues at play in Washington County justice
Several years ago, I wrote an opinion piece called "A $2,000 Solution to a $3 Problem." It was about Jeremy Murphy, a young man who ended up in Washington County Jail when he was caught riding the MAX without the proper $3 fare. He didn't have $250 for bail, so he was held in jail pending resolution of his case. Eventually his case was dismissed, but not before he had spent several weeks in jail.
The sheriff and district attorney at the time responded with an opinion piece of their own. They pointed out Jeremy was confrontational when MAX officers asked to check his fare, and that Jeremy had previously been arrested nine times in Missouri.
But their strongest point was probably the mug shot they published with their response. One look at the photo told you Jeremy was not like us. His long matted hair, his scraggly beard and disheveled look shouted "different," "homeless," "mentally ill," "dangerous."
If someone is in the business of selling safety, they will be more successful if you are convinced there is danger. The more danger you perceive, the more safety measures you will be willing to pay for.
Think of Washington County's recurring safety levies. Why do they always pass? What are you really buying?
Protests, marches, slogans on signs are fine. But they end — and mostly, things stay the same.
After the exchange of opinion pieces, then emails, I met with the sheriff and district attorney to talk about pretrial release.
Keeping someone in jail is expensive. Pretrial release programs can save a lot of money. Best practices and studies call for this, including a study commissioned specifically for Washington County. Yet Washington County's pretrial release program was then and still is drastically underfunded and understaffed to the point that it is largely ineffective and mostly out of compliance with state laws governing pretrial release decisions.
Our meeting went nowhere. Not surprisingly, neither the sheriff nor the district attorney perceived any real problem. Real change? Not necessary. Tweak this. Tamper with that. Call it good. Put up a photo of a scary-looking homeless person, or perhaps a Black person. Point made. The safety levies will pass.
Did I mention Jeremy had been arrested nine times? None of his arrests resulted in convictions. Yet how much time did he spend in jail?
Like so many others, Jeremy needed help, not jail.
Message to taxpayers: If you think you are buying safety, think again. Sheriffs and district attorneys are good at protecting (and expanding) their budgets, but maybe not so good at following best practices. Old ideas and the status quo tend to have a stranglehold on those who worked their way up through the system and have allegiances to the host of deputies that have families and budgets of their own. The result: Millions and millions of wasted tax dollars.
The solution? An educated, motivated public. Under scrutiny, people tend to make different, better, more accountable decisions.
Case in point: the Washington County District Attorney's decision to not prosecute Deputy Rian Alden for racially motivated assault of a Latino man. (Watch the video online.) Then, two years later, scrutiny. Then a decision to prosecute.
Look beyond the scary images.
• What percentage of people in Washington County's large and expensive jail are dangerous offenders?
• How many inmates are actually serving a sentence rather than waiting for resolution of their case?
• How many of them are in jail simply for probation violations because they cannot pay the court-ordered fees, fines, and treatment costs?
• Is the jail a revolving door for the poor, unemployed, drug-addicted, mentally ill?
• Are people of color overrepresented in Washington County Jail? Why?
• Do we spend too much money for so called "safety" and not enough for mental health, homelessness, schools, parks and recreation, for arts, for programs that help develop healthy young minds and lead to responsible, educated, critical-thinking citizens? Do not all of these things contribute to community safety?
There may be confusion about the term "defunding police." But perhaps it is best viewed as a way to reallocate resources so your tax dollars are more effectively spent, which is not that radical an idea.
Following best practices should be more important than protecting budgets. Jail provides no solution to the host of underlying problems inmates present — addiction, homelessness, unemployment, etc.
Protests and marches are fine, but they are no substitute for taking the time to educate yourself about local practices related to prosecution and incarceration. If you take the time, you might not like what you find. You might get involved. You might demand change.
Dean Smith is an attorney with Metropolitan Public Defender.
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