Seattle Isn't Dying

Response to "System Failure" Report

Recently, some local business organizations teamed together to commission a report evaluating a hand-selected group of individuals who frequently cycle in and out of the criminal justice system, titling it "System Failure." This report confirms what we already know - nearly all prolific offenders commit crimes rooted from mental health and/or chemical dependency issues. As evidenced by the cyclical nature of the offenders' behavior, there's little question that without direct intervention and enhanced investment in mental health, chemical dependency treatment, and housing options, this population is extremely likely to reoffend upon completion of their sentences. Few would argue the traditional criminal justice system is the best way to remedy these underlying issues, which is why we're invested in the King County-led Familiar Faces Initiative and VITAL pilot program, created to address the behavior of the region's most frequent offenders. But these programs, along with the LEAD pre-booking diversion program, aren't enough.

These business improvement organizations raise legitimate concerns - to have a person harm their business or employees, serve their sentence, then return to commit that same crime again is as dispiriting as it is alarming. If I were a small business owner, I'd be upset too. This is why I'm glad that Mayor Durkan has just announced the formation of an inter-agency working group to delve into these complex issues, including representatives from the Seattle Police Department, my office, the King County Executive's office, the King County Prosecutor's office, Public Health Seattle-King County, Municipal and Superior Courts, the King County Department of Public Defense, the City and County's Human Services Departments, a member of the City and County Councils, case managers and health care workers, and people with lived experience. I'm happy to participate in this inter-agency conversation to explore and address challenges across all our jurisdictions. I'm heartened to have the participation of our King County government partners, in that they lead the region's coordination and investment in mental health and addiction treatment. 

My team has been digging into these issues ever since I sat down with the business groups who commissioned the "System Failure" report (highlighted in turn in KOMO's "Seattle is Dying" piece), which included representatives from neighborhoods including SODO, Pioneer Square, Downtown, Ballard, and the U District. While there are some flaws in the report, some of the findings are spot-on - it does take my prosecutors approximately 5-6 months to file charges on a misdemeanor shoplifting case.  Why? I have 31.5 prosecutors on my team to manage all legal processes associated with 14,000+ police referrals every year. We review every referral, and Theft is the most frequently charged offense by my office. I have envisioned for years an office where sworn, trained prosecutors have the capacity to review all police reports within 24 hours and make charging decisions within 48-72 hours--simply because justice delayed is justice denied. We still aren't there. Without more prosecutors and prosecution support staff, it will continue to take time to file those cases. Councilmembers and the Mayor are in the unenviable position of balancing funding for quicker filing of cases from my office with funding for affordable housing, navigation team homelessness response, and dozens of other priorities. Working with limited resources, my office has prioritized cases that involve crimes against people (Assaults, Harassment, DUI, Domestic Violence) over theft cases. For the time being, I will not prioritize a theft case over an assault.

The "System Failure" report was developed without providing any recommended solutions, which is probably why you hadn't heard an instantaneous announcement of "here's how to fix it!"  Don't confuse the lack of a quick decisive response with indifference.  As evidenced by all the above-mentioned involved players, the criminal justice system is an inter-woven system where "going it alone" in pursuit of solutions is folly. I look forward to the conversation ahead.

Seattle Isn't Dying

First and foremost, people are rightly angry at federal/state/county/local governmental inability to stem our mental health & addiction & homelessness crises. While "Dying" is sensationalized (the musical score alone could induce a heart attack), the broad premise is sound-people are fed up with those left outside without treatment, support, or places to go, along with the predictable negative consequences on our collective quality of life.

It's important to see "Dying" for what it is-an opinion piece, and not objective, informative journalism. That was plainly intentional: During the two years he claims were spent on this piece, Mr. Johnson never asked my office for an interview for our perspective or to preview even portions of the piece. Just one day before its release, in fact, Mr. Johnson contacted my Communications Director to confirm a prior sentencing detail in a felony drug prosecution-which required us to explain instead that our office has zero prosecutorial jurisdiction over felonies, only misdemeanors. (And all drug crimes, incidentally, are felonies under Washington law.) Not surprisingly, examples of misinformation and misdirected frustration abound. For instance, at one point in the video the number "599" was projected onto the screen, apparently representing shoplifting calls from Uwajimaya to the 9-1-1 call center over an undefined 19-month span. Below that number was projected the number "8", supposedly representing the total cases we prosecuted from that 599 sample. That sounded wrong to me, so we pulled filing statistics from January 2017 to present for Uwajimaya's downtown store, and found we had actually prosecuted 197 of 344 police reports we received. (9-1-1 calls don't go to my office, of course, just actual arrest reports; insufficient evidence to convince a jury of the defendant's guilt was the reason for most of the reports we declined to prosecute.) The same is true for KOMO's claim that property thefts are not prosecuted in Seattle, when in fact theft is my office's single most prosecuted misdemeanor crime. In short, I'm truly puzzled by Mr. Johnson's claims, and wish we had been afforded the opportunity to fact-check or explain the "why" behind his unsupported assertions, prior to hundreds of thousands of program views. I am nonetheless glad for renewed public interest in how to make things better.

Seattle, among the nation's fastest growing cities, is hardly dying, yet it also isn't alone in facing the problems we do have. As the program briefly concedes, many cities are facing these same challenges. What we are seeing on city streets across America is the inevitable result of decisions made decades ago to de-institutionalize care for those in mental health crisis, widening economic and racial disparities with a shrinking social safety net, aggravated by the growing opioid addiction epidemic. Both KOMO and the prolific offenders report mistakenly leap to the conclusion that the criminal justice system has failed, instead of testing the naive assumption that the criminal justice system was ever designed to effectively address these complex and interconnected social and public health problems. 

I nonetheless prioritize the prosecution of violent misdemeanors, even when committed by defendants experiencing mental health crises. When many such defendants are adjudged by the court to be mentally incompetent to stand trial, we don't simply dismiss the criminal charges; we simultaneously refer these cases to the County for consideration of civil commitment under the Involuntary Treatment Act (ITA). At this point, the criminal justice system is statutorily and constitutionally barred from further involvement with the mentally ill defendant, and County mental health professionals and lawyers take over in any civil commitment proceedings. Often State resources are inadequate to treat patients under the ITA, with predictable consequences: mentally ill, often chemically addicted and homeless individuals who have committed criminal acts are released untreated and unsupported back onto the streets, where the cycle usually begins again. Washington does not have facilities on the scale of the Rhode Island facility depicted in "Dying"; I would welcome such resources. As you may know, Western State Hospital does not have sufficient beds or staff to handle the demand, and has even lost its federal certification.

This will be a challenging conversation, especially in a state with the most regressive tax structure in the Nation, which had to be sued to adequately fund education, and which, not surprisingly, ranks near the bottom among all states for mental health care funding. Some constituents calling my office have urged that people arrested for misdemeanor theft (under $700) be given year-long jail sentences, notwithstanding constitutional constraints. I also recently received a different report recommending that my office "not request jail time for those charged with theft." I don't agree with either extreme, but people have diverse perspectives when it comes to these issues, with differing views how to best advance public safety. 

Both "Dying" and "Failure" provide no real recommendations, instead pointing out perceived flaws in a system that includes players from the King County Jail, Seattle Municipal Court, Seattle Police Department, Harborview Medical Center, Seattle & King County Public Health Department, King County Superior Court, Addiction and Mental Health Service agencies, the King County Department of Public Defense, the King County Prosecutor, my office, plus City, County, and State elected officials who allocate budget funds. I am one player on this team, so whatever happens must be done in coordination, because the criminal justice system is filled with overlapping roles and responsibilities. Even the State Legislature is weighing in, with two bills still being considered in this session that could affect our mental health treatment outcomes: E2SSB 5720 and E2SSB 5444 are currently being considered in the House, and I urge you to follow their progress.

There is much work to be done amongst the above-mentioned agencies in the time ahead, so please stay tuned. Meanwhile, here are some different perspectives:

Podcast: Seattle City Attorney Pete Holmes defends efforts on drug crimes and homelessness Seattle Times   

Is Seattle 'dying'? Crime rates tell a different story Seattle Times   

The "Prolific Offenders" Report: A Close Read Seattle City Council Insight   

Man used as proof that 'Seattle Is Dying' tells his story Crosscut   

As we vent over homelessness in our 'jewel' of a city, let's not forget our shared humanity Seattle Times   

Are arrests the answer to homelessness? Seattle Police chief says no Crosscut