10/07/2011

Unforgiven

By Leah Sottile
Today, 13 million people have a felony record. Half are violent offenders, but half are nonviolent —people who were addicts and got caught with drugs, or were poor and got caught stealing.
And due to sweeping legislation, many nonviolent offenders get the same treatment as those who pose a more serious danger to society. Felons are, arguably, the last group that can be legally discriminated against in terms of housing, employment and voting rights.
In November we reported on the massive setbacks — “collateral consequences” —that felons run into. We introduced grandmothers, single mothers and poor farmers who messed up and changed their lives, but who couldn’t seem to escape being branded for life as a felon, despite great effort and reform.
Jerry Sumner was just a guy driving with a suspended license so he could get to work. Carrie Collette was a juvenile offender who was bullied into doing something stupid and took a bad deal to get out early. And years — in some cases, decades — later, they’re still paying the price.
Spokane has now taken steps toward minimizing penalties for some driving offenses since our November story. A driver’s license, we found, is often a stumbling block that keeps a felon from getting better housing and employment. Many felons don’t have a license because they have “legal financial obligations” that swell, with interest, out of reach.
Within the last month, Spokane Municipal Court Judge Mary Logan focused in on one type of infraction: driving without a license in the third degree. It’s the type of crime someone would be charged with if they were pulled over for a broken taillight and didn’t pay the ticket. For a felon, though, it’s a crime that could significantly compound their problems.
“If they don’t properly address that infraction, then it will eventually go out to collections, and then their license will be suspended, thereby criminalizing themselves if they continue to drive,” Logan says.
Logan found that she was seeing thousands of cases for that kind of offense and knew something needed to change.
“We looked at the caseload, we looked a resources and we looked at what it would make sense to apply criminal justice services to,” she says. “[We’re] not decriminalizing them, but if after they are screened by the prosecutors … if they are stand-alone cases, they would qualify for it being diverted and reduced to an infraction.”
Logan also says that plans are underway to launch a “community court” modeled after the Seattle Municipal Court. It would handle the cases of low-level offenders or people who have committed minor crimes of poverty. The community court would connect them with services they need to better themselves: financial management, housing and employment.
“The hope is to break that cycle, even if it’s just a point of contact,” Logan says. “We may not be able to save them all, but we can start.”
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