“Do not extend this dangerous program! How many repeat offenders will be put on the streets to steal, rob, assault and possibly kill.”
Lately, my inbox has seen several emails like this. The program this person was referencing in this case is Restorative Community Pathways (RCP), a youth diversion program that my Democratic and Republican colleagues on the Metropolitan King County Council approved unanimously. It is an intervention that helps youth who have committed their first offense turn their lives around through community-based efforts — which studies show can be more effective than courts and jails.
Indeed, RCP has shown promise so far. Since its launch in November 2021 through August 2022, 145 young people have participated. Only 8% went on to commit another offense. By contrast, of the 233 youth who were charged through the traditional track of prosecution and jail, 20% reoffended.
So when the constituent emailed me fearing “repeat offenders,” it seems his concern would better be directed to the track that has the higher rate of recidivism.
But this Op-Ed is not about RCP. And it’s also not about disagreeing with our neighbors who have legitimate fears about crime. There is no doubt that crime is a problem and public safety must be the top priority for any level of government.
This Op-Ed is about false narratives that prey on constituents like the one who emailed me. It’s about a political strategy that capitalizes on the public’s fears while hiding the full story. It’s about a disturbing national and local trend of candidates and political organizations using crime talking points, not in a way designed to solve problems, but purely as a campaign strategy.
Creating public safety requires serious policymakers willing to grapple with serious issues to design serious solutions. Talking points such as “prosecute and jail more people,” without any further analysis, ignore the complex combination of problems our region is facing.
Between the labor shortage, behavioral health crisis, housing crisis and the pandemic, our King County jails have pushed their limits. The downtown jail even had to stop accepting new bookings for a short period because of staffing issues. The public may hear false and simplistic narratives such as “King County should solve this staffing problem by just funding more corrections officers.” In reality, the jails already have the budgets they need to hire more officers, but are unable to fill vacancies because of a national labor shortage affecting many sectors.
The jails are facing such enormous challenges, that in a “historic moment,” corrections officers joined forces with public defenders to request significant changes to our criminal legal systems. In their letter, they requested that King County stop booking nonviolent offenders into jail, and to release nonviolent offenders who are already there. Think about it: these are not abolitionists requesting more diversion programs and jail alternatives — these are law enforcement professionals.
Between this national staffing crisis, the historic criminal case backlog in the courts caused by the pandemic and the data showing that jail alternatives can be more effective, it’s clear that prosecuting and jailing people at a higher rate than we already are is an unserious proposition. And if locking people up more aggressively is a policymaker’s proposal, ask them follow-up questions before taking the bait. Ask them for the specific details behind how they plan to overcome the monumental obstacles in the courts and the jails that I described above. Ask them how they expect jail to solve our region’s mental health and addiction crisis rather than exacerbating these issues. Taking their shallow recommendations at face value, which are designed not to make communities safer, but to stoke fear and score political points, is unhelpful and dangerous.
Now more than ever, public safety requires collaboration, creativity and root-cause analysis. We need to tackle the behavioral health crisis with urgency. We must stand up a network of crisis care centers to care for and treat people suffering from mental illness and substance use disorders. We need neighborhood by neighborhood organizing to create community safety, as I’ve done with coalitions of partners in Rainier Beach, Mount Baker and Little Saigon. We need intentional and strategic outreach to unhoused and housing unstable people to connect them to permanent homes and services, as many hardworking organizations around our region have been doing. We need to scale up violence interrupter, de-escalation, reentry and basic needs programs.
Public safety must be the top priority. But false narratives that ignore reality do not make us safer. We need legislators who are willing to grapple with the complexity of our post-pandemic world, collaborate and do the real work of solving tough problems.