Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison announced the “high utilizer initiative” in March, a new effort aimed at reducing “public safety impacts” from individuals who are repeatedly charged with low-level crimes.
The office claims that 118 people were responsible for 2,400 criminal cases over the past five years.
In an email to Real Change, the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) said that the initiative will establish new criteria to identify people who are repeatedly involved in the criminal legal system and focus extra attention on them to resolve their cases.
As part of the new effort, the King County Jail has agreed to incarcerate up to 20 people a day who fall under the high-utilizer criteria. A spokesperson for the jail said that Seattle will pay a one-time booking fee of $101.95 for each person jailed on top of $219.90 per person, per day. So far, according to the spokesperson, bookings associated with the high utilizer initiative have remained under the 20-person limit.
The CAO said it would consult about its strategy with partners including the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office and diversion programs such as LEAD (Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion), which offers people facing crisis behavioral health support instead of criminalization.
According to Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the nonprofit Public Defender Association, which manages LEAD, the CAO does not have the authority to expand funding, even as it may refer new people to LEAD. The city of Seattle has not restored funding to 2021 levels since outgoing mayor Jenny Durkan proposed only two thirds of its 2021 funding for 2022, Daugaard said. LEAD has been told that the cut will be reversed, but the organization has not yet seen the additional money.
This is not the first time Seattle has tried to address over-policed individuals. The city launched the “High Impact Offender Program” in 2012 and the “High-Barriers Individual Working Group” in 2019. Both had the express purpose of reducing involvement with the criminal legal system.
One of the main people behind the narrative of “repeat offenders” was Scott Lindsay, who is now the deputy city attorney. In previous roles, including as an advisor to former Mayor Ed Murray, Lindsay targeted people most involved in the criminal legal system, claiming that they were responsible for many of Seattle's safety issues. In 2019, he authored two reports claiming that permissiveness around crime was the root cause of systemic dysfunction in the criminal legal system.
However, some have questioned Lindsay’s methodology, saying that he cherry-picked data to make it seem like it is a representative sample. Kevin Schofield, author of the blog Seattle City Council Insight, said that Lindsay’s report “can be twisted into supporting comfortable narratives and generalizations that aren’t supported by facts and rigorous studies.”
According to the CAO, more than 1,000 of the charges against people labeled “high utilizers” are thefts and nearly 600 are trespassing, crimes which could fall under the label “survival crimes.”
In the CAO press release, the office also claimed that jail could “help break people out of the cycle of crime, substance abuse, and human suffering.” A growing body of evidence suggests that rehabilitation programs based in community settings may be more effective than jail and prison.
A 2014 literature review from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention suggests that youth have a greater chance of receiving appropriate rehabilitation services in the community than in detention. Another 2011 study sponsored by the University of New Mexico found that only 28 percent of jails across the country had any sort of substance abuse program and only 18 percent had consistent funding for these programs.
Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, criticized the high utilizer initiative announcement in a statement.
“We’re disappointed that once again, the system is working to perpetuate itself, not working to help solve real problems affecting people in dire need,” Khandelwal said.
It is unclear what the future of the initiative might be or even if it will be a substantive change from previous policy. However, it seems likely that the CAO will be spending more money on locking up people who fall under the high utilizer criteria in the King County Jail.
Guy Oron is the staff reporter for Real Change. Find them on Twitter, @GuyOron.
Read more of the Apr. 6-12, 2022 issue.