Racial Equity and Community Engagement Largely Left Out of $1.75 Million MacArthur Grant Budget

By Ron Toston

In August 1964, thousands of Americans, of all nationalities and backgrounds, converged on our nation’s Capital to hear a young Southern Baptist Preacher deliver a fresh message of hope. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s “I have a Dream” speech was built in part around the theme of coming to the nation’s capital to cash a check. The check consisted of “a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

“We have come to cash this check,” Dr. King said, “a check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” King used the metaphor of cashing a check to speak of African Americans gaining intangible rights and privileges that were previously enjoyed only by white citizens. However, that check, King said, has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

The Notion of Criminal Justice Reform

The United States Criminal Justice System in every state, county, and province is flawed. Spokane county is included. It has become a system that authorizes the murder of men and boys by Law Enforcement with impunity across the Nation. The scope of this essay will not allow me to extrapolate the reasons why this is so. (For more information on why read: “The New Jim Crow” by Michelle Alexander and see the documentary “13th” by Ava DuVernay.)

In the “Land of the Free”, one out of four Americans are behind bars, on probation, or on parole. African American, Hispanic and Native American men are disproportionately represented in the criminal justice system. Most are non-violent offenders, but passage of laws and ordinances across the nation makes it legal to give harsher and longer prison sentences to people of color. This mass incarceration takes an enormous toll on all communities and families, especially communities of color.

Being labeled a criminal, often equates to a life sentence for the formerly incarcerated person. However, this is not only a person of color problem. This is an America problem, one that is screaming to Americans of all nationalities and backgrounds of the need to seek and create solutions.

Please don’t misunderstand, violent offenders should be locked away. Criminal justice reform is about reevaluating and reprogramming how we as a society imprison and rehabilitate non-violent offenders. Locally and nationally.

Let’s Change the Way We Use and Misuse Jails

The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation reports that the majority of people in jail are presumed innocent. Many are simply too poor to post bail. The way that we currently use prisons and jails to address this population carries a significant cost to individuals, families, and communities.

“A nationwide poll on perceptions of jails and local criminal justice systems reveals that the majority of Americans believe the role of jails should not be to punish, and shows broad support for treatment and rehabilitation. The poll, conducted by RTI International and Zogby Analytics with support from the MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge, shows that Americans are particularly supportive of treatment and rehabilitation services for people who have committed non-violent offenses and for those with serious mental illness.”

“The way we misuse and over-use jails in this country takes a toll on our social fabric and undermines the credibility of government action, with particularly dire consequences for communities of color,” said MacArthur President Julia Stasch. “The thoughtful plans and demonstrable political will give us confidence that these jurisdictions will show that change is possible in even the most intractable justice-related challenges in cities, counties, and states across the country.”

The Safety and Justice Challenge

The MacArthur Foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge recognizes that there are better, fairer, and more effective alternatives to excessive jail incarceration. The Challenge supports a network of competitively selected local jurisdictions committed to finding ways to safely reduce jail incarceration, making communities healthier, fairer, and safer.

“The 11 jurisdictions receiving funding to implement their plans are representative of jails and local justice systems across the country. They range from large cities like Philadelphia and New York City, to smaller and mid-sized localities like Pima County, Arizona, and Spokane County, Washington. This diversity of sizes, geographies, demographics, and challenges will produce a variety of innovations and models for reform that communities across the United States can adopt.” (MacArthur Foundation)

Spokane County Receives MacArthur Grant of $1.75 Million

Spokane County was awarded a $1.75 Million MacArthur Foundation Grant in April of 2016. Prior to receiving the Grant, county officials met with community leaders and nonprofit organizations and talked about their proposed efforts to reduce county jail populations and new avenues to address the disproportionate numbers of people of color in the jail. The proposition was met with widespread acceptance from the community. Over the course of a year, elected officials sponsored several meetings, in what was termed “community engagement,” to enlist support and buy-in from community members, but the meetings failed to engage the community in a real and meaningful way and the experience left many community members feeling doubtful about the authenticity and credibility of the officials that held the meetings.

Community Members Question Community Engagement

In early April 2017, the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council (SRLJC), this region’s primary decision making body for the MacArthur Foundation Grant, announced that they would begin a community engagement process as was outlined in the grant application. Community leaders responded by drafting a letter to the SRLJC asking what “community engagement” looked like from the SRLJC perspective and requesting correspondence as to how exactly the council intended to share information with the community throughout the process.

Community members turned out for a meeting on April 10 that was hastily called in response to the letter sent to the SRLJC. The expectation from the community was to cash our metaphorical check, a check that would, in the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, “give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” A check that would incorporate the community members most impacted by Spokane’s criminal justice system into the SRLJC’s decision making process for the MacArthur Grant.

However, within the walls of that first meeting, facilitated by members of the Burns Institute, the exact opposite came to pass. The letter from the community, which was a collective expression of deep concern about the SRLJC’s honest commitment to transparency and accountability, was instead referred to as a “nuclear option” by representatives from the SRLJC, and other whispers expressed that the rest of the SRLJC would be “very upset” to hear of their beloved community requesting anything from them. How dare they!

The check that the community sought to cash came back marked: INSUFFICIENT FUNDS.

Questions from the Community

The grant to Spokane County from the MacArthur Foundation to address Criminal Justice Reform has two key components. The first is community engagement and the second is reducing the racial and ethnic disparities that exist in the jails and prisons in Spokane County, which are some of the highest disparities in the country. The McArthur Foundation provided Spokane County with the financial resources to positively impact both of these components.

However of the $1.75 million granted to Spokane County, only $20,000 was budgeted for racial equity and $12,000 for community engagement, or 0.018% of the total budget.

Community members question why a letter that simply asks questions and requests an assurance of accountability, transparency and reliability from SRLJC professionals has been condemned, dismissed and largely ignored, even as we sit face to face, in the same room.

For the record, as a community, we have been historically ignored, hoodwinked, and flat out lied to by those in positions of power, and as a result, before we move forward to participate in the SRLJC “community engagement” process, community members need reassurance that there is 100% buy-in from the SRLJC System Professionals that THIS TIME we are actually going to work together.

I have identified three major groups of stakeholders whose involvement, in a decision making capacity, are key to moving this bold project forward.

First, the system professionals who are on the Racial, Equity and Diversity (RED) Subcommittee; second, the community at large and its leaders; and third, the individuals and families of presently incarcerated persons of all nationalities, who carry with them the zeitgeist of mass incarceration and the solutions that lie within their individual testimonies.

If the MacArthur Foundation Grant is truly to accomplish its goals in Spokane County, we must not shrink back from the enormous task that lies before us all. Individually and collectively our presumptions, presuppositions, prejudices, and long held beliefs must be tethered, questioned, confronted, and demolished, allowing the Spokane community to cash this necessary check, “a check that will give us, upon demand, the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”

Not another check stamped: Insufficient Funds!