Report: Seattle needs reform to end revolving door between jail and homelessness

Business and neighborhood groups call for 'wholesale reform' of Seattle's criminal justice system.

Tents and structures seen at a homeless encampment near South Dearborn Street in Seattle's International District, Feb. 25, 2019. (Photo by Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

With the release of a damning report on the revolving door between the criminal justice system and homelessness, a group of local business and neighborhood organizations is calling on Seattle leadership to launch a “wholesale reform of our city’s criminal justice system.”

The report, commissioned by the group and released Monday, lays bare just how much overlap exists between jails and the streets and how little is done to prevent a return to either.

Its release comes on the heels of a Crosscut report last week that showed one of every five bookings by the Seattle Police Department in 2018 was of someone struggling with homelessness.

“Seattle’s criminal justice system is broken,” concludes the report, written by Scott Lindsay, a onetime public safety adviser to former Mayor Ed Murray and former candidate for city attorney. “By any measurement of effectiveness — protection of public safety, reducing recidivism, fair treatment of defendants, addressing underlying root causes of problem behavior, timely resolution of cases, reducing incarceration or efficient stewardship of public dollars — the way Seattle’s criminal justice system responds to individuals who frequently commit crime is not working.”

The report, titled “System Failure: Report on Prolific Offenders in Seattle’s Criminal Justice System,” was conducted in order to better understand public safety concerns in Chinatown-International District, the University District, SoDo, Ballard and Pioneer Square.

But what may have begun as a look into public safety morphed into an indictment of the criminal justice system, as it pertains to the city’s homeless population.

The picture it paints is one in which people repeatedly cycle between jail and homelessness, with very little done to prevent returns to either. According to the report, addiction is at the root of almost all of the offenses — be they shoplifting, theft or even assault. Issues are exacerbated by missed court hearings or check-ins, as well as breaking conditions of parole, which leads to warrants and can trigger other factors that increase the likelihood of another arrest.

“If you’re going to break that cycle you have to coordinate not only with the jail and police, but also with services,” Don Blakeney, vice president of advocacy with the Downtown Seattle Association. “And right now there are so many gaps between all of that we’re seeing what we’re seeing in this report today.”

Last week, Crosscut looked at the proportion of all bookings by the Seattle Police Department in 2018 involving people struggling with homelessness. Lindsay’s report, on the other hand, chose a sample of 100 “prolific offenders” — people who had been booked into jail at least four times in a year.

Of the 100 people Lindsay selected who fit this profile, all struggled with both homelessness and addiction. At the same time, at least 38 reported struggles with mental illness, although the number is likely higher.

“While each individual circumstance and story differed, it is significant to understand that chronic homelessness is universal or near-universal for those with the greatest involvement in the criminal justice system,” concludes the report. “This is also important because the criminal justice system provides little support in addressing underlying homelessness.”

The offenses that landed the individuals in court and jail almost always related directly to addiction. Lindsay concluded that all 100 people he profiled struggled with various forms of substance use. Trespassing, burglary, theft, robbery, false reporting, narcotic possession, even assault — all in some way related to the need to purchase drugs.

For example, one individual who had 27 criminal cases in two years was recently arrested for theft at the QFC on Capitol Hill. The theft was in support of a $150-a-day heroin and methamphetamine habit.

The workings of the criminal justice system tended to exacerbate the original offenses, Lindsay found. Of the requirements associated with an arrest — reporting to a court hearing or complying with certain conditions on release — all 100 failed at some aspect, usually resulting in a warrant.

Having a warrant all but guarantees any additional interaction with law enforcement will result in another arrest.

“The result is often cases that dragged out for more than a year with the court issuing multiple bench warrants,” the report says.

Lindsay also found that defendants were released from jail at midnight about 30 percent of the time. “The result is to place a homeless person back out into the street at a time when almost all night shelters stop admitting new clients and transit services are limited,” Lindsay writes.

The sum total of Lindsay’s conclusions is a system seen as ineffective at meaningfully addressing either public safety concerns or the homelessness crisis.

The report stops short of offering specific solutions. Erin Goodman, executive director of the SoDo Business Improvement Association, said the intention of the report was to raise the issue to government leaders. “We’re not criminal justice experts,” she said in a Monday press briefing.

The group has had conversations with city leadership, Goodman said, and they’re optimistic the leaders will take the data seriously.

In Seattle, the most recognized effort to reduce this intersection between homelessness and jail is the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program (LEAD), a partnership between outreach workers and police officers that offers low-level offenders alternatives at the point of arrest.

Based on an initial reading of the report, LEAD leadership noted that just 11 of the individuals profiled for the report were LEAD participants. At the same time, 12 of the 100 are queued up to be clients, which the LEAD team found encouraging.

“The business groups' point that the chronic behavior of some individuals has an extremely negative impact on neighborhoods is completely valid,” Lisa Daugaard, executive director of the Public Defender Association and co-founder of LEAD, said in an email. “However, often (not 100% of the time), this behavior can be very substantially mitigated, reduced or eliminated with well-designed engagement strategies, stable connection, trust-building, housing, and long-term coordination of all the ‘touches’ systems have with the individual, so we are not inadvertently building with the left hand and imploding with the right.”

Representatives of seven neighborhoods and business groups responsible for the report urged reform in a letter to Mayor Jenny Durkan, City Attorney Pete Holmes, the Seattle City Council, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Ed McKenna and Seattle Police Department Chief Carmen Best. They wrote that the city needs to explore more alternatives to incarceration. 

“It is clear to us that the justice system is not meeting its obligation to protect public safety in our communities,” reads the letter. “Moreover, it is failing in its objective to provide meaningful alternatives to incarceration to treat the causes of criminal recidivism.”

In a statement, Holmes called the issues raised in the report “legitimate” and pointed to the Familiar Faces Initiative and Vital pilot program as efforts underway to address the issue. “Few would argue the traditional criminal justice system is the best way to remedy these underlying issues,” Holmes said.

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About the Authors & Contributors

David Kroman

David Kroman

David Kroman is formerly a reporter at Crosscut, where he covered city politics.