County: Widely Reported Data Point in “Prolific Offenders” Report Was Wrong

Earlier this year, Scott Lindsay—a former adviser to Ed Murray who unsuccessfully challenged city attorney Pete Holmes in the 2017 election—published a report in collaboration with the Downtown Seattle Association and other downtown groups called “System Failure.” The report, which was featured prominently in the viral KOMO 4 special “Seattle Is Dying,” highlighted 100 so-called “prolific offenders,” including 87 who had been arrested in Seattle more than four times in a 12-month period and another 13 who Lindsay felt had “a particularly high impact on public safety,” as SCC Insight reported.

The report included one particularly startling statistic: More than 30 percent of the time, “prolific offenders” were released from King County jail onto the streets at midnight, when social services and shelter are unavailable. “For homeless individuals struggling with substance use disorders and mental health conditions, this practice can be hazardous to the individual and to the immediate surrounding neighborhood,” Lindsay reported. The statistic was reported by most major local outlets, including Crosscut, KING 5,  and the Seattle Times, which said the practice “put[s] at risk those who are homeless and struggling with substance-abuse disorders and mental conditions.”

“It’s not up to  me to correct publicly the inaccuracy of the information they’re making public.”—Consultant Tim Ceis, who worked on the “System Failure” report

The real number of people being released from King County jail onto the streets at midnight, according to the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention? Zero.

“We researched the past year and determined that no inmate was released out of custody from DAJD facilities at midnight,” says Captain Captain Lisaye Manning, a spokeswoman for the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. “The terminology of ‘released’ refers to being released from the King County Jail and transferred custody to a different agency, not released out of custody to the streets. There are some occasions that those outside agencies aren’t available until late evening or early morning hours.”

Screen shot from “System Failure” Report

 

Manning said Lindsay and his fellow researchers should have used the county’s public booking database to determine when and why people were released from custody (and to whom). Instead, Lindsay apparently used used the county’s Jail Inmate Lookup System, a blunter instrument intended to help people look up information about specific inmates. That system does not specify the reason an inmate was released or whether he or she was released into the custody of another agency.

“The Executive’s Office conveyed to the report’s author, Scott Lindsay, that he did not use correct data in his evaluation,” Capt. Manning says.

Alex  Fryer, a spokesman for King County Executive Dow Constantine, confirms that Constantine’s office told a consultant who helped Lindsay on the report, Tim Ceis, that the information in the report was wrong. DADJ provided The C Is for Crank with a link to what Fryer calls “the correct database, showing that we’re not putting people out on the streets of Seattle” at midnight. Fryer adds that Lindsay’s error was understandable, given that the jail list is the county’s public-facing database of inmate information. Ceis confirms that the county did inform him and Lindsay “that the information that we were seeing was inaccurate, for whatever reason,” but says he saw no reason to correct the record, since the errors, in his opinion, were the county’s.

“Their record-keeping and what they were putting out there in the jail records was not accurate,” Ceis says.  “It’s not up to  me to correct publicly the inaccuracy of the information they’re making public.”

Lindsay responded at 5:30 this evening to an email I sent three hours earlier. However, his response did not include answers to my questions about the apparent data discrepancy. I have sent him a more detailed list of questions and will update this post if I hear back.

Public Defender Association director Lisa Daugaard, who has said that the “System Failure” report should have been called “Systems Failure,” to emphasize that the justice system is not the only system failing chronically homeless people, says that if the county isn’t releasing people onto the streets at midnight, that’s a welcome change from something that “has been a problem in years past.”

Daugaard says that if the county isn’t, in fact, releasing prolific offenders into downtown Seattle at midnight, that just “underscores my feeling about the takeaways from the report —it’s less that the criminal justice system is failing, as that the criminal justice system, operating in the ways it inevitably does, is not the right system to address these problems, except at the margins and when other systems”—such as health care and housing—”have gaps.” Why, Daugaard asks rhetorically, “is this group [of “prolific offenders”] not prioritized in the large investments that have been made in each of those systems in recent years?”

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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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Hey there! Just a quick reminder that this entire site, including the post you’re reading, is supported by generous contributions from readers like you, without which this site would quite literally cease to exist. If you enjoy reading The C Is for Crank and would like to keep it going, please consider becoming a sustaining supporter. For just $5, $10, or $20 a month (or whatever you can give), you can help keep this site going, and help me continue to dedicate the many hours it takes to bring you stories like this one every week. This site is my full-time job. Help keep that work sustainable by becoming a supporter now! If you don’t wish to become a monthly contributor, you can always make a one-time donation via PayPal, Venmo (Erica-Barnett-7) or by mailing your contribution to P.O. Box 14328, Seattle, WA 98104. Thank you for reading, and I’m truly grateful for your support.

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.”