Brian Messing, Editor-in-Chief
On Aug. 29, students, professors, and community members crowded in Harned 110 for the law and justice forum. The forum featured three leaders in the criminal justice community in Thurston County: Thurston County Commissioner Tye Mesner, Director of the Thurston County Public Defense Patrick O’Conner, and Director of Thurston County Pretrial Services Marianne Clear.
The event was hosted by Saint Martin’s own criminal justice club. Club President Grant Gardner provided an introduction to the panel and talked about the criminal justice club’s role in the event. When asked about what he liked most about the event, Gardner replied,
“I loved that fact that students were actually interested in having the commissioner and other [department heads] there.”
Professor Teri Herold-Prayer briefly introduced the three panelists before giving them an opportunity to introduce themselves and talk about their role in the criminal justice system. Mesner has been a member of the criminal justice community for decades. Before becoming a county commissioner, Mesner practiced law for 21 years, including seven years as a public defender in a remote Alaskan village. In his current position as commissioner, Mesner oversees the budget of Thurston County, of which 75 percent of the discretionary spending is spent on criminal justice. This allows him to remain connected to his area of interest.
O’Conner’s main job is laid out under the sixth amendment to the constitution, requiring that the government provide an attorney to all persons accused of a crime. O’Conner’s office has 22 lawyers and 17 other staff members. The public defender’s office plays an important role, shared by many like it across the country, since 90 percent of those accused of felonies, and 80 percent of those accused of misdemeanors fall under the federal poverty line, and thus cannot afford an attorney.
Clear discussed her office’s mission as the neutral party who provides information about those accused of crimes to the court. Despite being the smallest department in the county, pretrial services plays an essential role. These include where people will live, a risk assessment, supervision that the court may order, and a new diversion program that started this August.
One of the issues that received a lot of discussion at the forum was Thurston County’s new risk assessment tool. The purpose of the risk assessment tool is to evaluate the likelihood that an offender will commit another crime. Thurston County is among one of five national research action sites that has been selected to test this new risk assessment tool. The new risk assessment tool will use the standard inputs of age, gender, age at first arrest, type of charges, and other factors to work with researchers to develop a better model for judging the risk that a defendant poses to the community.
When asked about what topic that he thought was most important, Gardner mentioned the risk assessment tool,
“Marianne touched on how we are getting the new [risk assessment system] implemented that will help properly put people in the right places.”
Through the research and data collected in Thurston County, all three panelists hope that the researchers can develop a new and more objective risk assessment tool that can be used by more jurisdictions in the future.
The Criminal Justice Club is hosting many upcoming events. These include a tour at Cedar Creek Correctional Facility on Oct. 4, and The Robert A. Harvie Social Justice Lecture Series: Benevolence: From prison to home film.