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In Search of Alternatives to Criminal Justice

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By Blaine Stum

A couple of months ago, the Spokesman-Review ran an article on Spokane’s “sit and lie” ordinance, a law which prohibits people from sitting or lying on sidewalks or other public right of way areas during a specific time period (with a few narrow exceptions). Supporters of the law extolled it for “connecting homeless people with social service providers” via Community Court. While Community Court is undoubtedly a better option than simply throwing people in jail, what was never questioned is why we see it as necessary to use police and courts as the means to connect homeless people to social service providers. Wouldn’t it be better, easier and less costly to contract with homeless service providers to provide on-the-street outreach to homeless people outside the shelter system?

Unfortunately, this is far from the only issue where we have failed to think outside of the narrow confines of criminal justice. If you are like me, you have heard the phrase “alternatives to incarceration” more times than you can count. On the surface, it is hard to disagree with. Mass incarcerations poisonous impact reaches far and wide, especially in communities of color. Yet, when you dig beneath the slogans you are confronted with ideas and policies that have become supplements to incarceration rather than alternatives, because they are still rooted in the criminal justice system.

Therapeutic courts, such as drug courts, are perhaps the best example of this dynamic. Drug courts trace their origins back to the late 1980s when the war on drugs was ravaging communities of color. They were marketed as an alternative to incarceration that would reduce recidivism and therefore, reduce the jail population. The promise of cost savings and reduced recidivism proved to be too tempting for jurisdictions to turn down: In 1999, there were only 472 drug courts. By 2009, there were over 2,000 with several hundred more in the planning phase. What has come to pass with the explosion of drug courts is not what was advertised however.

While evaluation studies have shown that many drug courts reduce recidivism, studies have also found that they have widened the net of the criminal justice system; bringing people under its control who would otherwise not be there. Not only that, but systemic racial bias (that many of these alternatives do not address) has kept the promise of this alternative to incarceration out of reach for many people of color: A 2005 study of 27 drug courts across the country found that the drug courts who kept data on the racial demographics of participants reported a majority of them as white. In five of the six drug courts in Washington State, between 79 percent and 92 percent of participants were white, confirming prior research in the state that Black and Latino(a) drug offenders were far less likely to receive alternative sanctions for a drug charge. Drug courts are far from the only alternative sanction that suffers from net widening and racial disparity. The population on probation is 54 percent white (in stark contrast to the racial makeup of our jails and prisons), and has widened the net in ways its original proponents no doubt did not intend for it to do.

Perhaps most damning however is the fact that research has shown that any contact with criminal justice system, even in the form of being stopped and questioned by police, can increase the risk of criminal behavior later in life and fundamentally shift how government is viewed. No amount of pretrial services, therapeutic courts or alternative sanctions can undo that harm, which is why we must start looking beyond alternatives to incarceration and search for alternatives to criminal justice.

Blaine Stum

About Blaine Stum

Blaine Stum is a 30-something-year-old native of the Spokane area who was raised in Spokane Valley. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a bachelor's degree in political science. He works in the local political arena and has been involved in LGBT non-profit work for several years.

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One comment

  1. I particularly agree with your last paragraph.

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