If there’s one thing that people concerned with homelessness in Seattle can readily agree on, it is this: The system that deals with chronically homeless criminal offenders is not working.
“System Failure,” a report compiled by former Ed Murray staffer and City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay, looks at 100 “prolific offenders,” all of whom have four arrests or more in the past year. All are homeless, and each has a history of substance abuse, mostly meth and heroin. While 38 percent are documented as having mental health histories, the actual number is likely much higher.
The report, commissioned by a coalition of Seattle business and tourism leaders, paints a dismal picture, with just these 100 individuals being booked into King County Jail a total of 636 times in the past 12 months.
The number of total Washington state criminal charges per person averages 36. Additionally, these offenders have faced misdemeanor charges in Seattle Municipal Court an average of 16 times each.
Nearly all of those profiled are engaged in ongoing criminal activity to feed their addictions. Many work with shoplifting rings, where street corner fences pay ten cents on the dollar for the retail value of stolen goods and provide lists of items that are in demand. “Several of these individuals reported to police that the theft-for-drugs ecosystem was their full-time, daily occupation.”
Among the 100 people profiled, all have more or less universally failed to comply with conditions of suspended sentences. This leads to issuance of warrants and more arrests, with little follow through to confront the root issues involved.
While some of the offenders profiled in Lindsay’s report are virtual one-man crime sprees unto themselves, the criminal justice system has routinely failed to either keep them in jail, or to address their addiction or treat their mental illness, much less end their homelessness.
A sampling of jail booking records for these 100 offenders reveals that they were released to the street at midnight at least 30 percent of the time. Dumping an addict on the street after all hope of getting into a shelter for the night has passed is a cruel set up for failure and an unnecessary risk for both the community and the individual.
Dumping an addict on the street after all hope of getting into a shelter for the night has passed is a cruel set up for failure and an unnecessary risk for both the community and the individual.
Of all the thorny issues the report raises, ending this longstanding practice seems like low-hanging fruit.
Recently, Crosscut reported that one in five people booked into jail in 2018 were homeless, with just over 1,000 homeless people going to jail a combined 3,211 times. While homeless people make up 20 percent of bookings into King County Jail, they represent just 1 percent of the Seattle population. This is a system failure in itself.
Over the past 25 years, criminalizing approaches to homelessness in Seattle have cycled in and out of fashion. Since the ouster of the Greg Nickels administration, the criminal justice system has mostly worked to avoid additional harm to those who struggle with homelessness and addiction. Those efforts have not been enough.
Our City Attorney and County Prosecutor have long recognized that jail is a poor solution to poverty crime, and have preferred to support programs like Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) that offer the opportunity to address underlying issues like homelessness and addiction.
Sadly, even as programs like LEAD have steadily gained support, interventions through the criminal justice system have mostly represented a missed opportunity to engage people in the services they require.
For legitimate reasons, the “System Failure” report is more a portrait of what’s broken than a prescription for reform. The issues are deep-seated and complicated, and real solutions involve better coordination across interwoven systems, and the allocation of new resources on a variety of levels.
Elections are coming, and the window for reform through well-considered public policy as opposed to political backlash is narrowing fast. Seattle needs to build on our strengths as a national leader on criminal diversion, not revert to the inequitable lock ‘em up policies of the past.
Tim Harris is the Founding Director Real Change and has been active as a poor people’s organizer for more than two decades. Prior to moving to Seattle in 1994, Harris founded street newspaper Spare Change in Boston while working as Executive Director of Boston Jobs with Peace.
Read the full March 6 - 12 issue.
Real Change is a non-profit organization advocating for economic, social and racial justice. Since 1994 our award-winning weekly newspaper has provided an immediate employment opportunity for people who are homeless and low income. Learn more about Real Change.