Seattle leaders should commit to a post-pandemic city where our use of jail continues to decline as we invest in individuals and communities.
A year ago, the King County Executive issued booking restrictions that limit King County Jail use for most misdemeanors to “ensure the health of everyone in correctional facilities.” The goal was to get everyone in single bunks to spread people out during the pandemic. This practice was not unique to King County; many other cities also reduced jail use and misdemeanor prosecution because of COVID-19.
The booking restrictions narrow the entrance to the jail, reducing law enforcement’s ability to jail individuals suspected of nonviolent offenses. Rather than booking these individuals, they would receive a summons to appear in court at a later date. Assaults, DUIs, and other crimes considered “serious public safety concerns” are exempt from the restrictions. Coupled with changes made by the Seattle City Attorney and Seattle Municipal Court, these restrictions significantly reduced jail use for misdemeanors, particularly among those often detained pretrial. Before the pandemic, on an average day in 2019, about 180 individuals were incarcerated in King County for Seattle misdemeanors. In 2021, that average has dropped to 54.
We can assume that this drop is from officials unwilling to be responsible for the foreseeable illness and deaths of people incarcerated under their authority. In a calculation of risk, any perceived benefit of incarceration didn’t win.
But we know that the threat of COVID, while immediate, is not the greatest harm from incarceration. Even short stints of incarceration cause massive destabilizing consequences. For an individual charged with a misdemeanor, the average length of stay in jail before the pandemic and today is consistently under 10 days, most served pretrial. Yet a few days in jail can trigger eviction, job loss, cessation of social benefits, suspension of needed medical treatments, and can leave children without a caregiver. In some of the most disturbing cases, jail stays lead to premature death.
Most misdemeanors tried in Seattle Municipal Court are crimes of poverty. Low level thefts, property destruction and criminal trespass make up a large portion of misdemeanor case filings. Ninety percent of individuals charged are so poor that they qualify for a public defender. Estimates are that more than half are people experiencing homelessness. These individuals are disproportionately Black, Indigenous and disabled.
Research from the American Journal of Public Health, cited in the Atlantic’s 2015 article “How Incarceration Infects a Community,” showed that a community’s “higher than average exposure” to incarceration by itself is responsible for several indicators of poor outcomes related to mental health, employment and housing born by the community, even by members who were not themselves incarcerated. Researchers examined incarceration as a toxin, concluding that “incarceration is in many ways similar to the plague.” The negative impacts spread and are far-reaching. (How ironic that it took a literal pandemic to force this reckoning with our use of incarceration.)
Our centuries-long experiment with solving societal problems with incarceration has been harmful, costly and counterproductive. The communities that have received the focus of police enforcement and incarceration are the exact communities that reflect the worst health, education and housing outcomes. It is also prohibitively expensive. The financial cost is both immediate to the individual as well as the institution. Depending on daily usage, Seattle can spend near $20 million a year on its contract for jail services.
Too many are still asking whether we should be jailing people more — when decades of doing just that have left our country and community with world-topping rates of incarceration, massive criminal legal-system budgets, and nothing to show for it but intergenerationally devastated communities. Incarceration exacerbates the problems it purports to solve.
That makes recidivism rates a deceptive indicator of system success, especially during an unprecedented year of pandemic and economic disaster that’s made causes and effects difficult to isolate. Evidence suggests that incarceration may increase crime at worst and does almost nothing to it at best. SPD’s crime dashboard reports there was a total of 75,636 misdemeanor and felony crimes in Seattle in 2020. Over the last five years, the dashboard indicates annual crime totals fluctuated between roughly 70,000 to 75,000, with a median of 73,119.
COVID forced public officials responsible for the criminal legal system to evaluate the use of incarceration against the possible cost. Once the threat from COVID dissipates, we cannot resume our ignorance about the plague of incarceration. As a community, we are safer and healthier when we reduce our reliance on incarceration.
Policy makers and editorialists continue to promote what are deemed “evidence-based solutions” to guide city investments. However, this standard is never used to measure the efficacy of spending millions each year on incarceration. Rather than continuing to invest in a tool we know destroys individuals and communities, let’s shift these funds to solutions that address root causes, like housing and better health care.