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Crime and (Types of) Punishment

A homeless drug user will sit in jail for 270 days. His cases show how two courts in Spokane address homelessness and addiction differently

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Chance Bunting, 21, usually sleeps in alleys downtown or in a tent by the river. - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Chance Bunting, 21, usually sleeps in alleys downtown or in a tent by the river.

Homeless and high on drugs, Chance Bunting often finds himself in handcuffs. At 21, Bunting has cycled through the Spokane County Jail numerous times for minor, "quality of life" crimes.

Some of his cases are filtered through the city of Spokane's Community Court, which places a heavy emphasis on pushing people toward services — such as housing, substance abuse treatment, even help getting an ID — rather than incarceration.

At the same time, one case is filtered through Spokane County District Court, which does not have a specialized drug court, and where jail time is often the fallback.

Bunting's situation represents a microcosm of the disparate treatment of some low-level crimes between the two courts. As one tries to connect him with housing and treatment, and embraces failure as a part of the process, the other sentences him to 270 days in jail.

"The municipal program has the extra abilities to address not just the symptoms of the problem, but the problem itself," says Spokane County Public Defender Steve Clark, who represented Bunting on the District Court charge. "I think the Municipal [Community] Court is taking the right approach here to address not just the outcroppings, but the root issue of what's going on."

At an average of $130 per day per inmate, locking Bunting behind bars will cost taxpayers about $35,000. But local attorneys talk of a potential solution. Collaborations between the two jurisdictions and an approach known as "integrated justice" would consider a person more holistically, rather than by individual charges.

At 13, Chance Bunting leaves home. He recalls his dad giving him a choice: Stay in school and follow the rules, or beat it.

From that point until his 18th birthday, Bunting says, he stays at Crosswalk, a teen homeless shelter downtown. For a while, it's great. He does he wants. He camps by the river, parties, tries drugs and flirts with girls, he says. He becomes one of the downtown kids, and earns a nickname: Stone. A friend, Crystiauna McLallen, describes him as a "good kid," a happy stoner who mostly keeps to himself.

But the excitement soon fades. At 18, he's no longer allowed to stay at Crosswalk, and going home isn't an option. Being homeless takes its toll.

"Think about your house when you leave it. I don't have that anymore," he says in an interview from jail. He pauses. "I guess I got this one alley that I like. That's where I sleep. It's right downtown."

Bunting's most recent troubles start last March. At around 1 am, he's digging through a dumpster in Browne's Addition when a Spokane police officer approaches. Bunting matches the vague description of a man who'd been standing on the front porch of a nearby house — dark clothes, baseball cap, about 20 years old. The residents thought the man was holding a weapon and called police, according to the officer's report.

Bunting does not have any weapons, but "appeared to be under the influence of drugs," Officer Trevor Winters writes in his report. "He was having a hard time concentrating and could not stand still."

Bunting is arrested on a misdemeanor warrant, and the officer finds a small baggie of meth in his pocket. He's booked for the warrant and drug possession on March 5, 2016.

Eleven days later, Bunting is caught stealing $16 worth of food from Rosauers. The theft charge, along with previous trespassing charges, go to the city's Community Court. The drug charge is directed to Spokane County District Court.

From April through June, Bunting shows up at Community Court, says Spokane City Public Defender Kathy Knox.

"With addiction, they'll come and do the right thing for a while and then fall off the wagon again," Knox says, speaking generally. "No one comes into any of our courts saying they want treatment, it's rare. So we talk to the person, and we did that here, but he went off the rails."

But in District Court — a system that was described in a 2013 report on Spokane's criminal justice system as "unwilling to embrace plainly needed reform" and lacking cohesion — Bunting misses almost all of his court dates. His cases linger in the two courts for the next 10 months, and he is rearrested at least eight times, according to public documents.

In police reports, officers justify contacting Bunting because he is a "known warrant subject" or because he's trespassing in places such as an "alley between Lincoln and Monroe" or Second Avenue and Madison Street, which is right next to the homeless shelter and drop-in center where he likes to eat.

"As people burn bridges, resources become more and more limited, and desperation becomes the norm," says Jeremy Clark, a volunteer director at the Cup of Cool Water drop-in center downtown that Bunting frequents. Clark, speaking generally of some of the young people who visit the drop-in center, adds that "Typically someone who is thinking that way is using meth or heroin more heavily. Those drugs trap you, and once you're in that pattern, some behaviors become so volatile that it becomes unmanageable."

In January, Bunting is sentenced by a District Court judge to 270 days in jail for the drug charge, despite the prosecutor's recommendation of just 45 days. In an interview later, Bunting is still unsure of the status of some of his charges, and isn't even aware they're being handled by two different courts.

Bunting's problem is not uncommon. Spokane City Prosecutor Justin Bingham says that about five or six people per day have cases pending throughout multiple jurisdictions in Spokane. Each case has its own court date, and each is in a separate location with a different judge and prosecutor and potentially, a different defense attorney.

Knox, the city public defender, suggests an agreement between the city and county prosecutors to better coordinate certain cases between the two jurisdictions.

To send cases from District Court to the city's Community Court on an individual basis is "not impossible, but it would have taken a lot of work," Bingham says.

A more efficient solution could be an "integrated justice" team of prosecutors, defense attorneys and a judge who would handle cases spanning multiple courts.

Currently, a theoretical integrated justice team is being discussed as a reform for initial court hearings in Spokane.

"None of the issues are easy, and there's probably no approach that works for everyone," Knox says. "But that's what Community Court tries to do, fashion a resolution around what the individual person needs. Regular court just doesn't have time to do that."

But, she adds, referring to Bunting, "When they started hammering him with longer sentences, the less opportunity we have to do treatment in the community."

Bunting doesn't blame his dad, or anyone else for that matter. "I put myself in this situation," he says. "And I took responsibility for my life."

He talks of going door to door and offering to do yard work for money. He didn't finish high school, and worries that it's too late now. He thinks maybe he'll go into Job Corps, an educational and vocational training program, when he gets out. He'd like to learn welding, he says.

The District Court judge suggested that he take drug and alcohol treatment classes while he's locked up. It's been a couple of weeks, and so far he hasn't. He has no idea what he'll do or where he'll go when he gets out. He worries about where he'll find food.

"My mind is lost and confused, man," he says, hopelessly. "Like, I don't know, just looking for the next cigarette I can hit, just so I can be doing something. It's kinda sad, but... " His voice trails off. ♦

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