King County Executive Dow Constantine on Wednesday proposed several new initiatives to cut funding from the county Sheriff’s Office, shift resources away from the traditional criminal justice system toward community-based alternatives and move away from traditional fare enforcement on county buses.
But his push to cut funding to the Sheriff’s Office brought immediate pushback from Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht, whose office said she was not consulted.
The proposals, part of the biennial budget that Constantine will present next week, have been spurred by the months of protests against police brutality and systemic racism that have dominated the nation and the region this summer. And they come even as the coronavirus pandemic has forced cutbacks across nearly all branches of county government.
“This is a moment that can’t be missed,” Constantine said. “We are looking at every option to scrape together the money we need to deal with the economic climate we’re in, as well as the urgent need to press ahead right now, while we have the chance on racial justice.”
“We have a system that is wildly racially disproportionate, and it’s disproportionate despite what Fox News will tell you, because Black and brown people are treated differently throughout our society, including by every element of the criminal and legal system,” Constantine said.
Almost all the proposals will require the approval of the Metropolitan King County Council, which will review Constantine’s budget in the coming weeks.
Constantine is proposing cutting $4.6 million in funding that the Sheriff’s Office gets from tax on retail marijuana sales. Instead, that money would be used to help people vacate old marijuana-related convictions and settle old fines and court fees. Some money would also be shifted toward youth marijuana-prevention programs.
Ryan Abbott, a Sheriff’s Office spokesperson, said Constantine did not speak to Johanknecht about the cuts and said they were trying to determine if they would lead to cuts in service.
He said the cuts equate to about 30 patrol deputies “or an approximate 22% reduction in 911 service to unincorporated areas of King County.”
Chase Gallagher, a Constantine spokesperson, said the Sheriff’s Office was consulted.
“The COVID recession, along with the need to fundamentally transform our criminal legal system, created necessary budget reductions for the King County Sheriff’s Office,” Gallagher said. “They were consulted on both fronts prior to today’s announcement. Suggesting anything else is inaccurate.”
More savings will come from continuing to limit the county’s jail population, Constantine said. The number of jailed adults in the county dropped from about 1,900 before the coronavirus pandemic to about 1,300 now, according to the county. Maintaining those numbers, Constantine said, will allow the county to close one floor (out of 12) of the jail in downtown Seattle, resulting in a $1.9 million annual savings.
The county will launch new restorative justice programs, for both adult and youth offenders, aimed at keeping people out of the traditional criminal justice system.
A $6.2 million program called “Restorative Community Pathways” would refer up to 800 young people, by 2023, to community-based services, rather than filing criminal charges against them. It would work with already established local organizations, like Choose 180, Creative Justice and Community Pathways.
An additional $2.7 million investment would divert about 1,000 first-time, nonviolent adult offenders out of the judicial system. It would launch by 2022 and would be the county’s first diversion program, in this form, for felony offenders, said Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Public Defender’s office.
Khandelwal called it a “a long overdue departure from a racist, ineffective and failed legal system.”
“We know that felonies carry with them collateral consequences that affect a person’s ability to get a job, or get education, or to get housing — all of those things really lead to de-stabilize that individual and their neighborhood and their family,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said.
“Instead of facing traditional prosecution, these individuals — who are facing their first charge and are disproportionately young men of color — will be offered a community-based alternative that emphasizes restorative justice and restoration for harmed parties,” Constantine’s office wrote.
The county will also begin to look for “new alternatives to traditional fare enforcement” on Metro buses. County audits have found that fare enforcement disproportionately targets the homeless and people of color.
Metro buses have been free to ride since the pandemic began, but fare collection could restart as soon as Oct. 1 and fare enforcement could resume as soon as Jan. 1.
The county currently has a $4.7 million contract with a private security firm to conduct fare enforcement, but the new goal is to have a new program in place by 2022.
Marlon Brown, a board member of Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County, called the changes a first step.
“The priorities presented today will begin to address some of the injustices the Black community and other communities of color have experienced for decades in King County,” Brown said. “There are many, many steps still to take.”