COVID has given prison abolitionists a weapon they've never had: proof that higher jail populations do not equal lower crime.
Hey, it’s Luke. Crushing to get the next episode out — an interview with a couple bad-ass women from the Bail Project.
That’s right! Our Independence Day episode is going to be about ending cash bail and forever changing the pretrial legal system.
So look for that soon. Subscribe to the pod if you haven’t already.
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IN THE MEANTIME, I wrote this little essay as background: Our jail has been sitting at about 60% of its normal (but over-capacity) occupancy for a few months. The results have been startling.
MORE JAIL ≠ LESS CRIME
I’m a lapsed but recovering journalist.
In May 2012, I wrote one of my final stories about an audacious-seeming plan to drastically reduce our jail population in Spokane. Its proponents called it Smart Justice.
The idea was (and still is) to empty our jail as much as possible of people who would be better off somewhere else: the addicted in treatment, for example. The mentally unwell in a hospital, perhaps.
The unconvicted anywhere but a goddamn jail bed.
There’s plenty of data that shows locking up people charged with their first crime or charged with non-violent crime actually increases recidivism. It makes sense: if you’re near the margins and you get arrested for something like petty theft or misdemeanor possession, and you can’t post bail, by the time you get out, whatever slim grasp you had on a normal life — your job, your kids — might be gone.
The Smart Justice is built on a moral center, a belief that incarceration is not and cannot be a restorative or rehabilitative system, but its rhetoric back then was very pragmatic and fiduciary. A jail bed at the time was $120 per person per night (I’ve seen reports that number is now $150). Putting someone in an ankle monitor costs $15 per day, and it allows people to stay connected to their community and possibly keep their job.
It was about keeping people connected, but also about saving lots of money. It seemed, at least in 2012, that if you were going to advocate a somewhat progressive reform, you’d need to offer a (fiscally) conservative pound of flesh in return.
At the time, ankle monitors were always part of the equation. I didn’t hear people advocating to just release more people on their own recognizance. Certainly no one advocated prison abolition.
Eight years later, we’ve gone from “Smart Justice” to “Defund the Police.” In the interim, activists have built a vocabulary and a platform for not just reform, but an end to the carceral state and, to borrow the title of Alex Vitale’s powerhouse 2017 book, articulating a path for The End of Policing. Increasing numbers of activists (and, amazingly, a few radical prosecutors) around the country are trying to completely reimagine the criminal legal system
Spokane isn’t exactly at the forefront of these movements, but in certain ways we’re a mid-sized city adopting elements of the vanguard.
In 2018, Spokane was one of the first 11 cities in America to get a branch of The Bail Project, a national organization whose daily work is bailing people out of jail and whose mission is to completely dismantle the pretrial detention system and end mass incarceration. Cool stuff.
But one of the impediments to truly emancipatory change has always been the reluctance among officials (and perhaps the public) to actually test that great, untested conservative truism: that locking up “criminals” leads to lower crime.
Then came COVID.
The week of Governor Inslee’s March 23 lock down order, Angel Tomeo and Sabrina Ryan-Helton — Spokane’s local Bail Project bail disruptors — wrote a letter to city and county officials urging them to follow jurisdictions around the country and reduce the daily population of the Spokane County Jail. Officials agreed. By March 27, The Spokesman-Review had noticed a “plunge” in jail population. Weekly inmate averages have hovered between 900-1000 for years. Since March, they’re at 550-620.
A month later (April 28), Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich called a press conference and declared a burglary task force, saying property crimes had “spiked,” blaming the covid jail releases without providing any real evidence.
But not only were the released inmates not the cause of a crime wave.
There was no crime wave.
At least not in the City of Spokane, which keeps far more comprehensive and accessible crime statistics than the County. The week Ozzie called his task force, year-to-date crime was actually down in Spokane by over three percent. Nearly two months later, year-to-date crime has fallen even further, down nearly ten percent.
There are hot spots — Homicides are up significantly, but violent offenders weren’t among those released. And overall, the picture is clear:
40% of the jail population was freed, and for months, the City’s crime rate stayed the same or dropped.
It’s clear Spokane trails other cities like Camden (NJ), Minneapolis and LA on sweeping police reform, and we’re way, way, way behind cities like Philadelphia and San Francisco in electing de-carceral prosecutors.
COVID is of course a complicating factor, and this short-term data does not mean crime will stay down forever, especially if there isn’t an effort to fund treatment and other diversionary programs.
But you can’t argue with data, and this is more than we’ve ever had. More than enough to imagine a different way.
So, as local activists push harder and harder for alternatives for incarceration, they’ll be able to use the data Spokane Police are gathering right now to not merely defend half measures, but fight for truly emancipatory change.
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