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Criminologist takes on regional justice reform

By Adrian Aumen, College of Arts & Sciences

van-wormer-webSPOKANE, Wash. – A Washington State University faculty member is steering the first major steps in a comprehensive overhaul of the way Spokane area police, courts, judges and detention centers work together.

The five-year plan aims to make the system more effective and efficient, with emphasis on developing alternatives to incarceration and providing tools to help offenders turn their lives around.

Jacqueline van Wormer, assistant professor of criminal justice and criminology at WSU Spokane, is participatory evaluator for the Spokane Regional Law and Justice Council (SRLJC). Leveraging her research expertise and experience in restructuring juvenile court systems, she contributes to the project in many areas.

“My job in this goes beyond the research into facilitating, collaborating and ensuring that reforms are being carried out,” she said. “Usually the university is an independent evaluator, responsible for collecting data and providing analyses of standing programs; so it’s a unique role for WSU, too.”

While professionally rewarding to wear so many hats, “it’s even more exciting to serve my community and sort of push Spokane out to the national forefront for positive change,” she said.

Setting a national example

Spokane is the first community of its size to launch such a large-scale effort across multiple jurisdictions and governmental branches, van Wormer said. She hopes it will become a model for the nation.

“This all fits within a larger movement across the country to reduce our overreliance on jails and prisons,” she said. With more than 2.3 million detainees, the United States has the highest rate of incarceration in the industrialized world.

Guiding the SRLJC project is a series of 43 recommendations from a year-long, independent study the city and county commissioned to identify evidence-based ways to reduce the high cost of providing justice and safety.

Diversion programs and alternatives to jail sentencing have proven to help reduce costs to taxpayers and reduce the number of repeat offenders, van Wormer said. Efforts include treatment for offenders, work programs and thorough assessments of risks and needs for victims and offenders.

Improving public health

As a criminal justice faculty member based at WSU’s primary campus for health sciences, van Wormer said she sees a strong connection between criminal justice and public health.

“When 60 to 80 percent of the people in jails and prisons have mental health or substance-abuse diagnoses and needs, it’s a huge public health concern – it’s a public health problem,” she said.

Switching from a punishment-based approach to a health-based treatment approach is the most effective solution, she said: “We’ve seen repeatedly that incarceration is not going to change behavior. In fact, incarceration is probably the least effective way to change behavior.”

“Resolving these issues requires integrated solutions that include strategies for reducing recidivism, addressing mental health concerns and substance abuse treatment,” said Spokane Mayor David Condon. “Together, as city and county partners with WSU Spokane, we are leading a conversation that is improving outcomes in Spokane.”

Experience and training

Van Wormer entered the field of juvenile justice in 1992 after completing her master’s degree in criminal justice at WSU. She later returned to the criminal justice program and earned her doctoral degree in 2010. Washington colleagues in 2009 named her the state’s inaugural Champion for Change for her work in juvenile justice.


Jacqueline van Wormer, WSU Department of Criminal Justice and Criminology (, 509-358-7907,
Adrian Aumen, WSU College of Arts and Sciences ( communication, 509-335-5671,



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