As detailed in Sunday’s editorial, the scourge of crime in Seattle caused by prolific offenders, facing minimal consequences for their action, must be addressed.
Mayor Jenny Durkan is convening a task force that includes leaders of the regional criminal-justice system.
Here are several changes they should consider.
1. Seattle should adopt a version of Hawaii’s HOPE “therapeutic jurisprudence” program for offenders with high risk of violating court conditions. The program combines random drug testing with swift, certain and short jail stays. Research found that participants were 72 percent less likely to use drugs, 55 percent less likely to be arrested again and 61 percent less likely to skip probation appointments.
2. The Legislature should pass Senate Bill 5720, which adjusts standards for involuntary commitment, providing doctors and courts more flexibility to evaluate people at risk of harming themselves or others because of mental health or substance-abuse disorders. Current law limits the holding period to three days; the bill allows up to five days. This complements legislators’ work to expand the mental-health system’s capacity and reform the competency evaluation process.
3. Increase drug-treatment programs in jails, so offenders with addiction can receive drug treatment and counseling concurrent with their sentences. Jails are becoming treatment providers already, since more than half of inmates have drug-abuse problems, according to Marc Stern, a former prison health administrator teaching at the University of Washington. Jail treatment won’t work for every situation but it would give judges additional options and certainty that both justice and treatment are served.
This is also needed because a number of offenders are diverted from jail to treatment programs they fail to complete.
King County has already taken steps in this direction, adding a jail team that can initiate treatment and prepare plans for treatment to continue post incarceration.
Rhode Island screens every incoming prisoner for drug abuse and provides counseling and medication. It works with a behavioral-health organization to provide treatment during sentences and afterward, at its community clinics.
Stern said that’s easier in a tiny state. Washington also has a shortage of community providers available to continue treatment, which has kept some jails from offering methadone. He made a great suggestion to build capacity: State medical schools should require all primary-care residents receive substance-abuse training before graduation.
4. Jails statewide need consistent training, protocols and support for administering opioid-treatment medications. A study Stern co-authored last year found nearly half of surveyed jails are providing the medications but most jail leaders want to address opioid disorder and are “thirsty for information about how to do better.” It estimated 53 percent of the state’s regular, illicit users of opioids exited jails in 2018, making jails the epicenter of Washington’s opioid crisis.
5. Seattle should change engagement protocols for police and Navigation Teams providing homeless outreach services, so they issue citations for illegal dumping and illegal camping.
This is not to arrest people, criminalize homelessness or even collect fines necessarily. But by issuing citations, police could establish violators’ identity, check for warrants and collect information for the regional information system connecting people to shelter and social services.
Citations and potential fines would add leverage to encourage squatters to accept offers of shelter, which often takes multiple Navigation Team contacts before they are accepted. Besides, Seattle should not have double standards for enforcement to protect the environment and public property.
6. Create a 311 phone hotline for nonemergency public service requests in Seattle, such as calls to assist people struggling on the street. This should include a real-time dashboard showing the time of call, time of response and disposition, emulating New York City’s dashboard. The public needs options besides calling emergency services or using Seattle’s “Find It Fix It” app, and the dashboard would help people understand the scope of the city’s response while providing accountability.
7. Increase transparency of diversion programs’ successes and failures. Initiatives to find treatment and community support for offenders suffering from addiction and other disorders are positive. But frequent and clear disclosure of outcomes is needed. This helps improve programs and provide accountability.
Seattle’s obvious safety and civility problems should have been addressed proactively by city officials long ago. It’s deeply disappointing that action is coming only after a coalition of business groups hired a criminal-justice expert to reveal system failures enabling prolific offenders to repeatedly victimize people.
There are no easy or simple solutions. But Seattle cannot allow a subset of its homeless population to continue harming themselves and many others.