In an effort to address repeat offenders, the Seattle City Attorney’s Office has identified 118 people suspected of committing more than 2,400 alleged misdemeanors in the last five years.
City Attorney Ann Davison, who was elected in November on promises to quell the city’s rising crime rate, announced this week that the criminal division of her office — which prosecutes misdemeanors referred by the Seattle Police Department — would focus on working with the King County prosecuting attorney to aggregate misdemeanors into felony charges, as well as coordinating social services and finding other solutions to remove people from “cycles of crime.”
According to a release from Davison’s office, 118 people referred to the city attorney for charges at least 12 times over the last five years, including at least once in the last eight months, have been identified under the new High Utilizer Initiative.
“To me, that means nothing really meaningfully was done for that individual. They were overlooked and ignored for too long, and fell through the social safety nets of the criminal justice system,” Davison said Tuesday. “And so now, by coordinating and linking efforts, we can make sure that we disrupt that cycle of crime for these people and intervene and make sure we are putting together a plan to set them up for success.”
The referrals for the 118 people include more than 2,400 separate potential charges, primarily theft (1,019 charges), trespassing (589), assault (409) and weapons violations (101), according to Davison’s office.
Charges of driving under the influence and domestic violence are handled separately and not included.
Davison said Tuesday that her office is working with local partners including the King County prosecuting attorney — who prosecutes felonies — to identify ways to disrupt patterns of repeated crime, including by encouraging aggregate felonies, a method of combining multiple lesser charges into felonies, at the discretion of the county prosecutor.
“For example, we have a person that has been engaged in repeated criminal activity in the North End of Seattle, daily involved in stealing from retailers and, in the process, harassing and threatening employees every day, sometimes multiple times in one day,” Davison said of one “high utilizer,” who had 18 misdemeanor referrals to her office over the last five years.
According to a spokesperson for Davison, the defendant is now in custody on suspicion of felony theft, made possible by outstanding warrants, expedited case filings and multiple cases aggregated as felonies.
“And so by communicating with King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and coordinating with the Seattle Police Department, we’ve been able to aggregate those and make sure we get that person not committing those crimes any longer,” Davison said.
“We know that the community wants immediate action that holds prolific offenders accountable, and we’ll keep going to court each day with a focus on preserving public safety and supporting victims,” King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg said in a written statement. “The challenge for the municipal court, and for our community, is finding resources to help address the root causes of the behavioral health problems that are leading a small number of people to be frequent utilizers of the court system.”
In addition to finding charges that result in more jail time, Davison says the new initiative and increased communication with other agencies will help provide addiction treatment and other social services to people to help keep them out of the legal system permanently.
“Then, making sure at the conclusion of that, that there is coordination with service providers with accountability in there to make sure it is not a return to the cycle of crime, but it is really meaningfully intervening for that person’s life,” Davison said.
At an event Thursday sponsored by the Downtown Seattle Association, Davison and King County Regional Homelessness Authority CEO Marc Dones discussed the importance of nonpunitive responses to crime and homelessness.
“I do very much agree that there does have to be some role right for the criminal legal system. But the question — and we talked a lot about this — is where is the handoff to the stuff that we do?” said Dones, whose agency provides housing and supportive services. “And that is not tight right now.”
King County Public Defender Anita Khandelwal echoed a call for services Friday, but also said that Davison’s program is neither a new idea nor the best approach.
After Davison’s announcement, Khandelwal’s office tweeted a thread criticizing the initiative and comparing it to the city’s similar High Impact Offender program in 2012 and High Barrier Individuals Work Group formed in 2019.
“The High Utilizers Initiative appears to be the same program reheated from 2012 and 2019,” Khandelwal said Friday. “The only guaranteed outcome of this initiative, and of any criminal legal system-based initiative, is racial disproportionality and continued cycling of individuals through a system that is harmful, expensive and ineffective.”
Davison’s efforts also reflect a broader tone among city officials, mirroring not only her early pledge to focus on timely prosecution of higher level charges, but also promises by Mayor Bruce Harrell to address high-crime areas of the city with swift police intervention and social services.
In the tweet thread, the public defender called Davison’s effort “tired,” noting the cost of incarceration — about $200 per night, or $6,000 a month — and suggesting, instead, more robust housing efforts by the city.
“Anyone who works in downtown Seattle or has recently visited it knows that the state of emergency extends well beyond any particular 50 to 100 people; addressing the lack of services in Seattle will require imaginative solutions that extend well beyond the generation of lists of people who suffer from those problems,” she added Friday in an email.
Khandelwal also rebuffed the practice of aggregating, calling it “costly and ineffective,” predicting that it would “only worsen outcomes for the individuals prosecuted, who will leave jail or prison with their lives further destabilized, and for our community at large.”
Instead, she favors divesting from legal intervention to meet the service needs of those frequenting the system.
“Addressing the State of Emergency of Homelessness involves building housing — and divesting resources from the criminal legal system in order to build enough housing for everyone in our community,” Khandelwal said. “Addressing the Public Health Crisis of Racism similarly requires focusing on policies and programs that improve outcomes for BIPOC individuals and divesting from those, like the criminal legal system, that are known to disproportionately harm them,” she said referring to Black, Indigenous and people of color.
According to Davison, 16 of the 118 repeat offenders were in custody as of Tuesday.