City attorney’s initiative targets ‘high users’ of criminal justice system

by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under license)

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office launched a plan March 15 to identify people frequently accused of committing a crime — or, as they put it, “high users of the criminal justice system” — to prioritize bookings into the King County Jail or for referral to mental health or substance abuse services.

So far, the bureau says it has compiled a list of 118 “high users” who, according to City Attorney Ann Davison, “create a disproportionate impact on public safety in Seattle.”

However, the initiative may face a hurdle in the near future: the service providers the initiative will rely on to provide case management may be stretched by the influx of new “high-user” customers are sent by the city attorney’s office.

The initiative mirrors similar projects the city attorney’s office launched in 2012 and 2019 to identify “high users,” though previous versions of the program championed by current assistant city attorney Scott Lindsay, favored terms such as “high impact offenders” or “prolific offenders”. to describe people considered high priority for law enforcement. Lindsay was a public safety adviser to former Mayor Ed Murray who led the charge to focus police resources on “prolific offenders” in 2019.

This time, Davison spokesman Anthony Derrick said, the city attorney’s fundamental goal is to create a working list of people who frequently interact with the criminal justice system. This includes notes on “who they are, what they’ve been through, and what we’ve tried that hasn’t worked in the past.”

Every person on his initial list has been referred by police to the city attorney’s office 12 or more times in the past five years and at least once in the past eight months, most often for theft or trespassing.

As a starting point, Derrick added that the Seattle City Attorney’s Office reached an agreement with the King County Adult and Juvenile Detention Department to jail “high users” for low-level crimes that wouldn’t usually land someone in detention.

“It’s a chance for us to get people out with a long history of street challenges, at least for now, so we have some time to try to step in,” Derrick said.

King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal sees the move as a repeat of a failed strategy.

“Over the past decade, the city has repeatedly announced similarly named initiatives that would focus more law enforcement resources on those who are already under the most scrutiny as a strategy to ensure public safety.” , she said. “This tired strategy of arrest, prosecution and imprisonment is costly and clearly ineffective.”

Lisa Daugaard, co-executive director of the Public Defenders Association and co-founder of the LEAD diversion program, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, sees the potential for success. She says the initiative has a solid foundation – meeting the needs of “large users” on a case-by-case basis.

Daugaard thinks Davison could avoid the mistakes of past crackdowns by pushing his counterparts in city and county government to expand programs like LEAD to accommodate a new wave of customers. While LEAD could accept all 118 people as new clients, she said, LEAD would not be able to accept new clients for the foreseeable future, including people the city attorney’s office might add to the list of “heavy users” in the future.

“We may not have the capacity we need,” Daugaard said, “but that doesn’t mean the city attorney can’t argue for more capacity for us… The fact that “There aren’t the ideal resources to care for someone doesn’t. That doesn’t mean we should avoid having a conversation about what to do. The best thing we can do is to sit around a table and discuss our options.

Daugaard added that the presence of Natalie Walton-Anderson, the new head of the City Attorney’s Office Criminal Division who previously oversaw the King County Attorney’s Office’s partnership with LEAD, gives him reason to be hopeful that the office is serious about including service providers in the decision-making process about how to work with someone on the “heavy users” list.

She explains that the city attorney’s office and its partners — namely the Seattle Police Department (SPD) — may not need to rely on arrests and bookings to reach people on the list. “big users”.

“Just because people are under arrest doesn’t mean they have to go to jail. That decision is up to the police, not prosecutors,” Daugaard said.

She added that she hopes the city attorney’s office will be receptive to the message that jailing so-called “heavy users” may not improve public safety in the long run.

“Unless the circumstances that place people on the list are taken into account – a lack of legal income and trauma, among others – no prison treatment strategy will make a difference in a person’s behavior,” Daugaard said. “If there is a table and we are invited to it, I will strongly argue that prison is not the place to invest resources.”

PubliCola contacted the SPD to ask if the department planned to order officers to resume post-arrest referrals to LEAD; Over the past year, nearly all of the people referred to LEAD for behavioral health or housing assistance have come from non-law enforcement sources, ranging from the city attorney’s office and the Seattle Fire Department to professional associations. of area.

Meanwhile, 16 of the 118 people currently on the city attorney’s “high users” list are already being held in King County Jail: 10 for misdemeanors and six for felonies.

Whether someone remains in long-term detention, Derrick said, is a decision of Seattle City Court and King County Superior Court.

Seattle City Court is already processing a flurry of new cases from the city attorney’s office, which filed more than twice as many charges in the last week of February as it did in the first week of January.

Paul Faruk Kiefer is a journalist, historian and Seattle resident. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

Featured Image: The Seattle Police Department mobile compound parked at the intersection of S. 12th Ave. and S. Jackson St. (Photo: Paul Kiefer)

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