The Board of Commissioners called for a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system with the primary purpose of providing a vision for a trusted and accessible system of justice that provides a high degree of safety and confidence. The assessment occurred over four phases during 2018, with multiple public engagement opportunities. They secured consulting expertise in quantitative data analysis, forecasting methodologies, community engagement, and evidence-based practices for preventing and reducing crime. The consultants conducted this work in consultation and partnership with the Board of County Commissioners, the Steering Committee, an Operations Team, and feedback from community organizations, agencies, and residents.
The assessment clearly finds that the residents of Benton County require an effective, efficient and equitable criminal justice system that maintains public safety and holds people accountable, while providing treatment opportunities that address underlying causes of criminal behavior. The community has high support for a balance of accountability and rehabilitation services. Current conditions in the County’s justice system, however, make effective performance in these service areas problematic and compromise community safety.
In terms of corrections responses, the ability to hold offenders accountable is compromised by dated facilities, reliance on services outside the community, and limited use of evidence based responses. Release and service decisions do not use a risk assessment tool to identify individuals at high, medium and low risk to reoffend. Defendants fail to appear at a substantial number of court-ordered hearings because there is often no consequence for their absence. In addition, key justice system facilities, the jail, the courthouse, and the law enforcement center, are all in poor physical condition and have serious operational deficiencies.
Regarding rehabilitation responses, current treatment does not use the risk, need, responsivity approach shown to result in significant reductions in crime. Community-based substance abuse services and mental health treatment are limited. Also, incarcerated offenders have little access to rehabilitative programs such as mental health, substance abuse treatment, educational support and other services that reduce the likelihood of repeat offending. Upon leaving the jail, offenders are not linked to treatment and other support services thereby increasing the likelihood they return to an environment that places them at higher risk to re-offend.
These issues have developed over time and have multiple, complex dimensions. The potential consequences of failure to address these conditions range from the catastrophic to the less visible, long-term impact on local crime of a justice system that does little to address the risk factors that put people at risk for involvement in the justice system, and releases offenders potentially posing a risk to repeat victims.
As such, an effective plan to improve justice system performance will require a comprehensive approach that addresses program needs and opportunities for improvement in enforcement, justice, and accountability, and coordination of program strategies among social service agencies, law enforcement, custody, the courts, and community corrections.
The Board of Commissioners is eager to move from this assessment to implementation. However, the assessment acknowledges there are a handful of investments that can be made within current County facilities. We are beginning implementation by investigating these recommended rehabilitation and accountability next steps. Our 2019-2021 biennium budget invests in pre-trial services to include an industry-standard intake assessment tool and electronic monitoring, and assigning staff to begin investigating next steps for data collection, systems evaluation tools, advisory mechanisms and a sobering/crisis resource center.