My father celebrated his 18th birthday in Italy while fighting on the bloody beaches of Anzio during World War II. He was a brave man, trained to jump out of airplanes in combat...
My father celebrated his 18th birthday in Italy while fighting on the bloody beaches of Anzio during World War II. He was a brave man, trained to jump out of airplanes in combat.
My father survived the worst the Nazis could throw at him. It was alcohol that would kill him. In 1972, after a night of excessive drinking, he died when he fell down a flight of stairs.
As a society, we don’t face the toll that alcohol imposes on all of us. It is an often hidden problem that needs to be addressed.
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Alcoholism can be treated, but it takes resources — resources that local governments do not have. We need to locate and secure a stable source for funding alcohol treatment.
Every night, the police arrest people for a variety of offenses and book them into the King County Jail. The Seattle City Attorney’s Office prosecutes people arrested for committing minor crimes, most of whom are alcoholics. Many are mentally ill and self-medicate with alcohol to escape their problems and fears. They do not fit the picture most of us have of dangerous criminals.
Yet, we diligently process their cases and keep them in jail, because, sadly, we have no better alternative for them. The fact is we are keeping them alive, but just barely. Many of these poor souls are drinking themselves to death on the streets of our city.
For example, there is “Bill,” who in the past five years has spent more than 1,000 days in the King County Jail. Yet, he has never committed a felony. All of his offenses were minor, such as criminal trespass or failure to appear in court for drinking in public. Bill averaged two-thirds of each year in jail.
Last year, I saw him on the Friday after Thanksgiving when I handled the jail arraignment calendar. He was angry, just barely sober, and clearly deeply troubled. He had been arrested for entering a church where he claimed he left his clothes. He pleaded not guilty and remained in jail.
It cost the city $125 to book him into jail and another $88 in fees for each day he remained there. During this time he was sober, warm, dry, clothed and received good medical care. The sad fact is that we did him some good, albeit at great expense to city taxpayers. Eventually Bill was released but, predictably, was back shortly thereafter, again and again.
I wish I could say that Bill is unique, but he is not. On Seattle’s streets there are hundreds of men and women just like him, living the sad life devoid of quality and substance. They make up a significant part of our chronic homeless population. We do little more than clean them up, dry them out and send them on their way back to the streets of Seattle.
The criminal-justice system is left to handle our citizens who cannot help themselves. When there are no other solutions, the police, the courts, the prosecutors and the jails serve as caretakers for these most unfortunate souls. Yet, the criminal-justice system is designed to deal with criminals, not serve as a de facto homeless shelter.
This is a very expensive way to deal with this problem. In Seattle, we spend about $25,000 a year on jail costs for Bill alone. When you add in emergency-room visits, sobering-center visits and other social services, we spend more than $100,000 a year on Bill.
While the citizens of Seattle and Washington state have made a significant annual investment in people like Bill through the criminal-justice and public-health systems, we have done little to address the underlying causes driving their destructive behaviors. If we do not act to change our response, many people will continue to die on our streets.
In order to break the street-to-jail-to-street cycle, we must address the underlying cause of the problem with stable funding for therapeutic services, housing and case management. Alcohol abuse and mental illness are very difficult to treat. A growing mountain of research tells us that there are specific practices and programs that can help our chronic street population address many of their serious challenges while also reducing or ending their involvement in the criminal-justice system.
Many good things are happening, but we need the tools to do more. We need the stable funding for treatment and case management. We need to develop supportive housing instead of using costly jail and prison beds.
It’s time for our state Legislature to give localities the tools we need to help our most vulnerable citizens. We need to act. We are wasting money and wasting lives. A secure, sustainable method for funding alcohol treatment is well past due.
Tom Carr is Seattle city attorney.