Last Monday, a standing-room-only crowd of 350 people joined King County Councilmembers at a Council Town Hall forum to examine the status of ongoing reforms in King County's criminal justice system and to focus on community partnerships that help deter crime, prevent recidivism and encourage self-empowerment.
"I was extremely pleased by the large turnout," said King County Council Chair and district host Larry Gossett. "By their presence and comments, the community let it be known that the simple approach of increased arrests, incarcerations and the building of more jails have proven not to solve crime. Prevention, intervention and strong partnerships with communities in addressing socioeconomic issues have been proven to be the most effective and cost efficient ways to ensure safe neighborhoods."
Councilmembers were briefed on how a 'paradigm shift' focusing on alternatives to incarceration has helped King County avoid nearly a quarter-billion dollars in additional incarceration costs over the last seven years, while reducing the county's need to build a third jail or a second youth detention facility.
Superior Court Judge LeRoy McCullough discussed the programs available for youth offenders and the role that adults must play to help keep young people out of the criminal justice system. Nate Caldwell, Director of Community Corrections for the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, highlighted the alternatives to incarceration that exist for adult offenders and programs that are designed to help reduce recidivism.
Other speakers included Mary Flowers and Kelly Jefferson who talked about community efforts to keep people out of the criminal justice system. Flowers discussed the power of local communities to build their own grassroots systems of support to empower people, prevent crime and assist victims. For instance, Flowers singled out the work of local churches, one of the few institutions she said was truly "owned" by the people of the community. Flowers called on local government to fund locally run community programs that are changing lives and to directly employ local community activists when funding positions designed to help communities.
Jefferson, who spent eight years in prison on drug-related convictions, detailed how community support helped him transform his life. Today, Jefferson works as a drug and alcohol counselor trainee with the Central Youth and Family Services and assists with "Chance to Change," a program that enable young men in drug court to avoid jail if they complete a 10-month program. Jefferson recently founded "Know Thy Self," an organization dedicated to teaching young African Americans their history in order to build a sense of worth, value and a knowledge of self. Jefferson emphasized the importance of using one's own personal experiences to help others and he asked the community to provide a second chance for people with a criminal record.
Following the program held at First A.M.E. Church, more than 50 local residents testified before Council for over two hours. The public testimony included suggestions for funding specific programs and for changes in state and county policies, personal experiences with the justice system, call for community action and a variety of other issues and suggestions.
In 2000, the County Council initiated major reforms to the criminal justice system with the adoption of the Juvenile Justice Operational Master Plan and the Adult Justice Operational Master Plan in 2002.
Rather than incarnation, these reforms placed new emphasis on prevention and diversion programs. The county now has a variety of programs, such as drug court, designed to break the cycles that lead to incarceration.
With alternatives to incarceration, adult jail populations have been reduced by more than 1,300 inmates. This has allowed the county to avoid additional incarceration operating costs of about $235 million. The county has also been able to avoid building a third county jail and a second juvenile detention facility, saving millions more.
The major paradigm shift in King County's criminal justice system has helped keep the public safer by preventing crime, reducing recidivism and has helped change lives.