Arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating people for minor street crime is hugely expensive and counterproductive. We are a safer and more humane community if we invest in programs that provide real solutions, writes King County Public Defender Anita Khandelwal.
As King County’s public defender, I share the desire for a safe city recently expressed by three of Seattle Business Improvement Area (BIA’s) directors. Unfortunately, some of their proposed policies will reduce safety and increase suffering and social injustice.
The three BIA directors seek more arrests, prosecutions and incarceration. This strategy has proved to be both hugely expensive and counterproductive. Putting someone in jail for just 20 days costs $3,100, and that doesn’t include the court and policing costs that precede the jail sentence.
Moreover, even brief periods of incarceration separate families and result in the loss of jobs, Medicaid, Social Security and housing benefits. Such losses disproportionately affect the poor, furthering inequality, increasing suffering and reducing safety.
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King County spends almost 75 percent of its general fund on the criminal-legal system, leaving less money for more effective and humane programs. For example, a recent study found that of the $35 million King County spent in one year on “familiar faces” (people booked into jail four or more times in a 12-month period), 87 percent went to criminal-legal or crisis-response programs. Only 13 percent went toward housing, re-entry, health care or other services that would help our community be safer and healthier.
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When people’s health and housing needs are met, they are less likely to commit crimes. For example, a recent study found that the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansions reduced violent crime by 5.8 percent and property crime by 3 percent and led to criminal-legal system savings of $13.6 billion.
Diversion programs make us safer. Seattle and King County’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, launched in 2011, has become a national model, adopted by cities around the country. Under LEAD, an officer who stops someone for certain offenses can refer that person to services that address their underlying needs. LEAD has already delivered results: LEAD participants are 58 percent less likely to be arrested after enrollment in the program compared with a control group that went through the existing criminal-legal system.
Similarly, King County recently launched the Vital Program, a pilot project providing comprehensive support — housing, case management and health care — to the aforementioned “familiar faces.” An evaluation is due next spring, but initial reports suggest the program has been effective in stabilizing its participants and directing them away from further trouble.
Other communities — from San Francisco to Albany, N.Y. — are experimenting with new approaches, including safe-consumption sites, which try to reduce the harm of drug use while connecting people to services. San Francisco voters just approved a tax that will generate up to $300 million a year to provide housing and services for individuals in need.
Seattle and King County should continue to implement policies based on evidence and equity. Evidence-based programs and equity make us safer and will help to end our decades-long over-dependence on prosecution and jail. When we invest resources into programs that address real needs and provide real solutions, we are a safer, more just and more humane community.