The criminal justice system has a homelessness problem.
In 2018, 30,142 individuals were released from the King County jail. A recent survey showed that only 3 percent of inmates have a plan for housing or employment following their release. In a 2013 study by the Urban Institute, research revealed that formerly incarcerated individuals with stable housing experience better outcomes. If housing is a component of successful re-entry and such a small part of King County’s imprisoned population has a housing plan, why are there not better supports in place for this vulnerable population?
In Seattle, the homelessness crisis is exacerbated by a disproportionate amount of contact between homeless populations and the police. This overexposure to policing and the criminal justice system creates a revolving door phenomenon where opportunities to obtain housing are diminished with each contact with the police. I argue that this harm can be mitigated with the expansion of criminal justice diversion programs like Seattle’s Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion Program (LEAD).
Seattle’s LEAD program, established in 2011, is the first pre-booking diversion program of its kind in the United States. Its purpose is to divert offenders suspected of low-level drug and prostitution to case management and wrap-around services instead of traditional booking and criminal prosecution. The primary goal of LEAD is to reduce criminal recidivism, or the act of reoffending. Secondarily, LEAD hopes to reduce the costs of criminal justice service utilization by placing people in services instead of incarcerating them.
RELATED ARTICLE: LEAD diversion program is expanding to the city of Burien
A 2016 program evaluation conducted by the University of Washington on the outcomes of LEAD revealed some powerful results. Participants in 2016 were twice as likely to have been sheltered after referral to the program, and 89 percent more likely to have obtained permanent housing. Given that 82 percent of participants in the evaluation’s sample were homeless prior to contact with LEAD, these are powerful statistics. Even more striking is that for every time a participant contacted their case manager, they were 2 percent more likely to find shelter and 5 percent more likely to be housed after referral.
Given King County’s homeless crisis, the intersection of incarceration and homelessness is worth exploring. As of January 2018, 12,112 people were identified as homeless in King County. This number is sourced from the annual “Count Us In” point-in-time count for Seattle and King County and is up 4 percent from 2017. In 2015, during the first of these counts, the homeless population was recorded at 10,047. That’s 2,065 new individuals identifying as homeless in just three years. The King County jail can house 1,262 inmates and averages 100 daily bookings. As of October 2018, the jail has managed 30,237 bookings and 30,142 releases, roughly 3,024 bookings and 3,014 releases monthly. With King County’s homeless population continuing to grow and the county jail already experiencing an exceptionally high processing volume, alternatives to incarceration are essential.
Criminal justice system diversion as practiced by LEAD takes the following steps:
1) A crime is committed or someone with a prior criminal history is referred to the program;
2) Assigned LEAD officers assess the individual to see if they meet criteria;
3) If the individual meets requirements, they are referred to a LEAD case manager;
4) The case manager refers them to Evergreen Treatment Services’ homeless outreach program where they undergo a rigorous needs assessment;
5) The individual is referred to available community resources.
In Seattle, the overwhelming amount of crimes committed are property crimes. Of the 37,547 crimes reported by the Seattle Police Department for 2018 as of December, 33,419 of them are property crimes, approximately 89 percent of the total. In particular, 6,902 were burglary and
23,004 were larceny-theft. In other words, the people of Seattle are committing crimes of poverty. If this is the case, is Seattle’s justice system punishing people for being poor by conducting business as usual?
As a society, it is essential that we consider ways to support our homeless populations so they don’t have to commit these crimes in the first place. LEAD, with its wrap-around services and commitment to bettering outcomes of low-level offenders, might provide us with a step in the right direction.
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