Months after businesses asked local leaders for a “wholesale reform” of the city’s criminal justice system, Seattle and King County officials Thursday announced a suite of programs aimed at addressing repeat offenders who cycle in and out of jail, often for petty crimes and misdemeanors, and who struggle with substance use and mental health.
Mayor Jenny Durkan and City Attorney Pete Holmes, along with county Executive Dow Constantine and County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, announced four programs focused on providing more places for this population to get treatment, as well as more incentives for them to seek that treatment.
The announcement came in response to a large-scale effort by area business leaders to address this population. That campaign was punctuated by the February release of a controversial report that looked at 100 so-called “prolific offenders” in Seattle. Written by former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay on behalf of several business districts, the report found that these offenders usually committed the same crimes in the same neighborhood, and cycled in and out of jail.
In response, Durkan this spring convened a work group that included members of law enforcement, courts and public health. Thursday’s recommendations are a partial outcome from that work group, but many of the measures will need to be approved as part of upcoming city and county budgets.
The recommendations would cost the city almost $3 million, while the county would kick in $2.4 million. The programs could come online late this year or in early 2020, Durkan and Constantine promised.
The city and county said they will work together to fund a 60-bed treatment center, with case-management and behavioral-health services available, in the West Wing of the King County Jail at a cost of $4 million for capital, and $800,000 for annual operations — costs that will be split evenly between the city and county. A low-barrier homeless shelter has been open in the jail since the spring.
Durkan also proposed putting $170,000 toward a new probation program in Seattle Municipal Court focused on interventions such as shortening sentences for an offender who’s willing to get into treatment; this would be in addition to $120,000 from Seattle Municipal Court.
The mayor has also proposed hiring an additional assistant city attorney focused on overseeing these efforts and assessing whether they work, at a cost of $150,000.
The mayor stressed that while these proposals are a first step, the city and county can’t be the only ones filling holes created by the state and federal government’s decadeslong trend of defunding behavioral-health treatment.
“To be clear, no one is saying any of these pilots alone is solving the problem,” Durkan said. “Cities have become the new safety net of America, but cities alone do not have the capacity to address these issues.”
Studies have found that a concentrated cohort of people who cycle in and out of the King County Jail also struggle with substance abuse, serious mental illness and often, homelessness.
But they get little help with long-term planning or treatment: King County has only employed six jail-release planners, who help inmates set up medical or drug treatment before they leave custody.
The city has proposed funding a reentry planner who would exclusively work on scheduling services for people booked into jail for less than two days (currently, King County jail provides only limited release planning for people who are booked for more than 72 hours).
There are some existing programs aimed at breaking the streets-to-jail cycle, such as the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which offers community care to low-level drug offenders, or the Vital program for people with serious mental illness, but they tend to be small and their case managers’ loads full, Holmes said.
Business leaders expressed optimism at the new slate of proposals.
“I think the message was loud and clear that they heard us,” said Mike Stewart, executive director of the Ballard Alliance of businesses.
Other business leaders also expressed hope that there will be more accountability and compulsory options for people who re-offend but have no desire to get treatment. Jon Scholes, president of the Downtown Seattle Association, supports the programs but said there’s little to keep someone in the West Wing shelter, which is in the county jail, after they leave custody.
“Are the people that need to be in this facility the most the ones finding their way there?” Scholes said. “Or are we finding them on the corner of Third and Pine still?”
Constantine said both he and Durkan are interested in eventually creating a facility where people can be ordered to go that is “less than jail, and is more therapeutic, more likely to get their behavior turned around.”
The programs announced Thursday, however, are “seeking to address people who, when presented with stable living conditions and onsite services, can break out of the cycle of crime and homelessness,” Constantine said.
For Sara Rankin, who leads the Homeless Rights Advocacy Project at the Seattle University School of Law, the prolific offenders in Lindsay’s report represent a tiny slice of the population, but the city still doesn’t have a great answer for how to help them. She supports the measures announced today.
“The vast majority of people will be well served by” measures like these, Rankin said, “but what about the very few people who won’t be?”
These programs also don’t address what to do with people whose mental illness is so serious that they’re found not legally competent to stand trial, but aren’t sent to Western State Hospital, so they’re often released.
“We’ve seen pilots come and go,” said Erin Goodman, executive director of the Sodo Business Improvement Area, an alliance of businesses in the industrial district. “I see these as good ideas to try, but not ‘we’ve discovered the solution.'”