Morning Crank: The Council Takes a Closer Look at the “Prolific Offenders” Report

1. Six of the seven District 2 city council candidates participated in a forum at the Georgetown Ballroom last night, and I livetweeted the whole thing. Check out the thread to find out what committee Ari Hoffman wants to chair, when Tammy Morales last called 911, why socialist Henry Dennison won’t answer yes/no questions… and also a lot of information about the candidates’ plans are for addressing homelessness, environmental racism, and how they would counter displacement in South Seattle.

2. City council members Lisa Herbold and Lorena Gonzalez invited leaders of several of the business groups that funded a recent report on so-called “prolific offenders” Wednesday, and raised questions about the methodology behind the report and some of its conclusions.

Mike Stewart, the head of the Ballard Alliance, said he and other business leaders got the idea for the report after they “started to realize that things are changing a lot” for business owners, who he said are dealing with a level of crime they’ve never experienced before. “It feels like  many of the instances of the criminal behavior that happens seems to be coming from many of the same people—so an individual might commit a crime in a business district one day and the next week, they’re back again,” Stewart said.  Erin Goodman, the head of the SODO Business Improvement Area, added, “One individual in our sample is quite simply terrorizing the Ballard business district. … In a single day in 2018, he shoplifted from five stores in a two-hour period, brazenly pushing a shopping cart full of the stolen items from store to store.”

These bookings include charges for failure to appear or comply with terms of release, which made up 41% of the charges in a King County assessment of its “Familiar Faces” program, which deals with a similar population.

The report, “System Failure,” was put together by former mayor Ed Murray’s public safety advisor, Scott Lindsay. It highlights the booking histories of 100 individuals, hand-picked by Lindsay and characterized in the report as “roughly representative of a larger population of individuals who are frequently involved in criminal activity in Seattle’s busiest neighborhoods.” Every person on Lindsay’s list had four or more bookings into King County Jail over a 12-month period and had “indicators” that they were chronically homeless and had a substance use disorder.

The criteria Lindsay used for his list are similar to those used in King County’s Familiar Faces initiative, which, in 2014, identified 1,252 people with four or more annual bookings (94 percent of them with a substance use disorder or behavioral health issue, or both), except that Lindsay chose to zero in specifically on frequent offenders who are homeless, which Familiar Faces does not. Just 58 percent of the people on the 2013 Familiar Faces list had indicators that they were homeless. By hand-picking a list of offenders who are homeless (and by choosing to highlight the stories of mostly people who moved to Seattle from elsewhere), Lindsay’s report feeds into the common, but unsupported, belief that most people who commit property crimes are homeless and that homeless people from across the country come to Seattle to mooch off the city’s generosity.

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Gonzalez and Herbold pressed the “System Failure” funders on some of the methodology in their report, including the fact that Lindsay determined the number of crimes each person had committed using police reports, complaints, and charging documents, without looking at anything the person said in their own defense or tracking whether they were ultimately found guilty. Goodman, from the SODO BIA, acknowledged that “some of these folks could have gone through the criminal system and been found innocent,” but added, “This is simply a snapshot based on bookings. [Lindsay] clearly states that it does not say how the case was adjudicated.”

Goodman expressed frustration that so many people were let out of jail within hours or days of being arrested; that so few of the people found incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness were subject to involuntary commitment; and that “there was zero accountability in the system for consequences for failure to comply with court-ordered release conditions.” Those conditions, according to the report, included things like appearing at every court date; abstaining from drugs and alcohol; submitting to random drug tests; and going to abstinence-based inpatient or outpatient treatment.

Underfunding services and then complaining that they aren’t working “is like sprinkling a little bit of salt over a giant bowl of soup and then [saying], ‘Oh, salt doesn’t work,'” Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard said.

One issue with these kinds of conditions is that there simply isn’t enough available capacity—in other words, funding—for the services that do exist to serve clients with mental health and substance abuse challenges. The Law Enforcement Diversion Program, for example, recently expanded with funding from the recent Trueblood court settlement to provide a vastly expanded suite of services (including mental health care, transitional housing, and intensive case management) to people whose competency to stand trial has been called into question. That funding will serve about 150 people who would not have previously been eligible for the program. But, as Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, who was also at the table, pointed out, there are likely thousands of people who could benefit from similar services, while the total capacity for all such programs is in the hundreds. Underfunding services and then complaining that they aren’t working “is like sprinkling a little bit of salt over a giant bowl of soup and then [saying], ‘Oh, salt doesn’t work,'” Daugaard said. “We are not right-sizing the things that are effective.”

The other, related, issue with expecting people to comply with court conditions is that those conditions are often unreasonable. As long as the underlying issues that are causing someone to shoplift or act aggressively or loiter in the doorway of a business aren’t addressed, telling people to show up to day reporting or abstain from their drug of choice is a losing strategy. It’s little wonder that 100 percent of the people Lindsay chose for his report  failed to comply with the conditions imposed by the court.

Goodman’s frustration is understandable: Her group represents businesses in an area of the city with the highest concentration of people living in RVs, many of them with substance use disorders, untreated mental illness, or both. But there’s little point, experts say, in trying to force people into treatment when they aren’t ready. “If the clients aren’t ready, they aren’t ready, and therein lies the challenge,” Heather Aman, a deputy prosecutor at the city attorney’s office who works with LEAD clients, told me recently. “Anyone who isn’t addressing their substance use or mental health issues has an impact on their community, because there’s not an ability to force individuals to [get help or treatment] until they’re ready. And what do you do with the person that needs to be ready? That’s the million-dollar question.”

3 thoughts on “Morning Crank: The Council Takes a Closer Look at the “Prolific Offenders” Report”

  1. Erica you completely misunderstood or misrepresented the methodology used to compile the list of offenders by saying Lindsey chose to focus on homeless offenders. That is simply not true. The sample was done over 60 consecutive days looking at each days bookings and using the criteria of people who had been booked at least 4 times in the last year to define a prolific offender. When he reached the first100 offenders he stopped. He did not focus on homeless offenders, rather it was just a fact that all of those first 100 had self reported as homeless. I hope this was a mistake and not a deliberate attempt to discredit the validity of the information. Only you know for sure.

  2. For me, this article further proves the utterly tragic lack of urgency from our City Leadership for 10 years now. It’s clear that they want to maintain the status quo and focus almost entirely on housing, while completely under-supporting intervention on the front lines. After billions have been spent regionally over the past 10 years and we’re waiting for needed housing, people are abandoned and dying on the streets of our neighborhoods and public safety/property crimes are dismissed as “inconvenient” by City Leadership. If City Leadership says that they support LEAD and Navigation Teams, why are they ridiculously under-funded, to the point of guaranteed failure. If City Leadership themselves say that we don’t have enough police officers or city prosecutors, then why not? Amid a long-booming local economy with record government revenues, how is it possible we don’t have the funds for these things which City Leadership themselves “say” they support and “say” we need? Despite impassioned and urgent concerns by the public, where has the City Leadership been the past 10 years and where is THEIR urgency?

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