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Washington State University
CAS Connect April 2015

Criminologist takes on regional justice reform for Spokane

Faced with an overcrowded jail, packed court dockets, and community concerns about a high-profile law enforcement incident, Spokane two years ago was not unlike dozens of towns nationwide. What now sets it apart is the holistic approach the city and surrounding county are taking to reimagine and reform the regional justice system.

van Wormer

A key figure in this ambitious effort is Jacqueline van Wormer, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at WSU Spokane. In her unique role as participatory evaluator for the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council (SRLJC), van Wormer is steering the first major steps in a comprehensive overhaul of the way area police, courts, judges, and detention centers work together.

The five-year plan aims to make the system more effective and efficient, with emphasis on developing alternatives to incarceration and providing tools to help offenders turn their lives around.

Leveraging her research expertise and experience in restructuring juvenile court systems, van Wormer contributes to the project in many areas. “My job in this goes beyond the research into facilitating, collaborating, and ensuring that reforms are being carried out. Usually, the University is an independent evaluator, responsible for collecting data and providing analyses of standing programs, so it’s a unique role for WSU, too,” she said.

While professionally rewarding to wear so many hats, “it’s even more exciting to serve my community and sort of push Spokane out to the national forefront for positive change.”

Setting a national example

Spokane is the first community of its size to launch such a large-scale effort across multiple jurisdictions and governmental branches, van Wormer said. She hopes it will become a model for the nation.

Facilitating communication between partner groups is among skills van Wormer brings to the Spokane project.
Facilitating communication between partner groups is among skills van Wormer brings to the Spokane project.

“This all fits within a larger movement across the country to reduce our overreliance on jails and prisons,” she said. With more than 2.3 million detainees, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the industrialized world. “As republicans and democrats agree, we can’t keep over-incarcerating—we need to build alternatives.”

Diversion programs and alternatives to jail sentencing have proven to help reduce costs to taxpayers and reduce the number of repeat offenders, van Wormer said. They include treatment for offenders, work programs, and thorough assessments of risks and needs for victims and offenders.

Improving public health

Being a criminal justice faculty member based at WSU’s primary campus for health sciences underscores the strong connection between criminal justice and public health, van Wormer said.

“When 60 to 80 percent of the people in jails and prisons have mental health or substance-abuse diagnoses and needs, it’s a huge public health concern—it’s a public health problem.”

Switching from a punishment-based approach to a health-based treatment approach is the most effective solution, according to van Wormer. “We’ve seen repeatedly that incarceration is not going to change behavior. In fact, incarceration is probably the least effective way to change behavior.”

Guiding the SRLJC project is a series of 43 recommendations from a year-long, independent study the city and county commissioned to identify evidence-based ways to reduce the high cost of providing justice and safety.

“Resolving these issues requires integrated solutions that include strategies for reducing recidivism, addressing mental health concerns, and substance abuse treatment,” said Spokane Mayor David Condon. “Together, as city and county partners with WSU Spokane, we are leading a conversation that is improving outcomes in Spokane.”

In May, Spokane became one of 20 recipients nationwide of a $150,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation aimed at reducing overcrowding in local jails through the foundation’s Safety and Justice Challenge. Van Wormer and Spokane Regional Jail director John McGrath are coordinating the Safety and Justice Challenge reforms.

Experience and training

Van Wormer entered the field of juvenile justice in 1992 after completing her master’s degree in criminal justice at WSU. She later returned to the criminal justice program and earned her doctoral degree in 2010. Washington colleagues in 2009 named her the state’s inaugural Champion for Change for her work in juvenile justice.