New proposals to address Seattle’s problem with repeat criminal offenders are welcome, demonstrating that elected officials take seriously concerns about safety and civility.
They complement Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan’s emphasis police patrols.
But it’s too soon to declare problems with Seattle’s criminal-justice system are solved. More work remains to increase safety for those living, working and visiting the city, by more fully addressing persistent misbehavior by individuals victimizing the community and cycling through the justice system with little consequence.
Also unclear is whether the proposals by Durkan and King County Executive Dow Constantine will be funded by the Seattle City Council and Metropolitan King County Council when budgets are updated later this year.
Two pilot projects are particularly promising.
Seattle would extend a grant-funded program providing enhanced probation services. Counselors trained in harm reduction would interact more frequently with prolific offenders and coordinate with drug-treatment providers and other supportive services. But Durkan is allocating just $170,000 and expecting another $120,000 from the Municipal Court’s existing budget.
This must get past City Council extremists who have questioned probation funding, even though probation helps offenders get their lives in order and protects the community.
King County is proposing a pilot program for offenders who have received multiple court orders for mental-health treatment. Serving up to 25 people, the $366,000 program would link them to intensive mental-health treatment and regular check-ins with the court.
New approaches are needed to address offenders with mental-health challenges. The state is finally increasing behavioral-health capacity, including more community treatment facilities, which should be accompanied by a statewide discussion of how that will complement criminal-justice reforms and challenges.
The lion’s share of city and county spending proposals — $4.8 million — would expand a homeless shelter in the county’s downtown jail. It adds another 60 beds, with behavioral-health services and case management, tailored for repeat offenders. There would be no requirements they remain in the facility, although Constantine said that could change in the future.
For context, at the end of 2018, Durkan budgeted for 2,300 emergency shelter beds, 70% enhanced with services.
Seattle also spent $13 million to create a high-service shelter in 2017, the Navigation Center in the Chinatown International District. It continues to operate but seriously failed to meet its original objectives and performance targets.
More shelters and services are just part of the puzzle.
Discretion of police, prosecutors and judges plays a role in protecting generally homeless, repeat offenders from further harming themselves and others. Seattle and King County have done groundbreaking, well-intentioned work exploring diversion programs that offer treatment and social-services instead of jail to some. These experiments should continue and in some cases expand.
But serious crime increases in pockets of the city, and a substantial number of offenders violating release terms and failing to complete treatment and follow-up services offered as alternatives to jail, suggest officials have not yet found the right balance of diversion and incarceration.
This problem was highlighted in a February report commissioned by business organizations examining 100 prolific offenders to identify justice-system failures. Those individuals have since offended 217 additional times. Put another way, they victimized at least 217 people since February. Those victims paid a high price for Seattle’s inconsistent justice system.
That February report and outcry spurred Durkan to create a task force, leading to the proposals announced Sept. 12. The task force affirmed the prolific-offender problem. Looking at the 500 people most frequently identified by police as suspected offenders over the past year, it identified 159 who had seven offenses in a year, 105 who had eight offenses and three who had 25 offenses reported. Again, that means the current system allowed three individuals known to be offending to harm at least 25 others.
Multiple offenses, particularly seven or eight a year, are clear signs of underlying issues and “different interventions or solutions may be needed as the behavior or circumstances lead to higher rates of contact,” a task force report said. No kidding.
City and county proposals are a start and deserve support. But officials must continue pursuing changes in policy and practice until measurable improvements are shown.