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Erika Preuitt
Kate Nacy
Published: 26 October 2017

Multnomah County plans to create a treatment shelter for women involved in the criminal justice system, and will create culturally specific programming for African American women with a new grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

Early this month Multnomah County received $2 million from the John D. And Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to reduce reliance on jails. The grant is part of the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), which offers financial and technical support to jurisdictions implementing data-driven strategies to eliminate ineffective, inefficient and unfair practices in local justice systems.

That funding includes $750,000 allocated for programming that caters specifically to African American women who are on probation, have charges pending in mental health court or are awaiting a competency hearing in criminal court/

Abbey Stamp, executive director of Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC), said the new round of funding from the MacArthur Foundation will support the development of a new treatment shelter for women involved in the criminal justice system.

According to Stamp, the shelter will be loosely modeled after a transitional housing facility for men on Northwest 5th Avenue and Glisan Street. The Stabilization for Treatment Preparation Housing Program (STP) offers psychiatric care, legal assistance and a number of other resources to men with mental health issues.

“STP has been widely successful and a wonderful resource for people in need of stabilization,” says Stamp.

Careful to note the women’s shelter is “still a concept, for now,” Stamp says programming will be designed to focus on culturally-specific, trauma-informed services.

“Trauma characterizes a lot of women in the criminal justice system,” says Erika Preuitt, adult services director for the Department of Community Justice. “It’s a huge pathway for women.”

Local jails, according to the SJC’s website, are meant to hold people serving short sentences, while detaining those awaiting court proceedings who pose a threat to public safety.

However, many jails have become warehouses for people with mental health and substance abuse issues. Facilities are bloated with individuals held on nonviolent traffic, property, drug or public order offenses, and incarceration is levied disproportionately against people of color.

In 2015 Multnomah County was among the preliminary cohort of 20 jurisdictions selected for inclusion in SJC’s collaborative network. The selection process drew applications from nearly 200 jurisdictions in 45 states and territories, and an initial award of $150,000 helped the county fund the Racial and Ethnic Disparities Report, a bleak account of inequity released to the public in February of 2016.

Produced by independent researchers assigned to the county, the report found that people of color are negatively impacted in greater numbers than White counterparts at every stage of the criminal justice system – from initial contact through arrest, detainment, prosecution, sentencing and parole or probation violations – and that disparity is greatest for Black individuals. 

Jurisdictions participating in the SJC were asked to develop plans for targeting resources and implementing more effective risk assessment to determine if confinement is really necessary.

In response, Multnomah County and its Local Public Safety Coordinating Council (LPSCC) drafted a list of 12 strategies aimed at addressing system inefficiencies and initiating alternatives to jail.

Proposed changes include shortening the time it takes to process probation violations through the court system, decreasing jail stays for misdemeanor defendants undergoing mental health evaluations, and expanding the use of citations in lieu of jail for certain misdemeanor charges. Additionally, individuals who use the transportation system without paying will no longer face jail sanctions.

Preuitt, who is also president of the American Probation and Parole Association, stresses the importance of training staff to be sensitive to the needs of people experiencing trauma.

“We want to make sure we’re creating a sense of belonging and safety in the services that we’re delivering.”

The MacArthur grant, Preuitt says, will help provide appropriate coaching to staff who will work with survivors of physical and sexual abuse, domestic violence and commercial sexual exploitation.

“We need staff that know how to best work with women on their caseload –– specifically, African American women with mental health issues –– so they can provide effective supervision and case management.” 

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