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System Failure and System Improvements

Last week several Seattle community leaders released a report called “System Failure”.   The report focused on 100 individuals, most of whom had been booked into King County jail four or more times in a rolling 12-month period.

Scott Lindsay, the writer of the report, acknowledged that our criminal justice system is not working as any of us wants and concluded this way:

“For this sample prolific offender population, and for the neighborhoods where they commit crimes, Seattle’s criminal justice system is broken. 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.”

This report confirmed what we have been dealing with for years: a high percentage of people arrested are repeatedly stealing to pay for a $100+ per day drug habit but our community is failing to provide treatment and services to address their addiction.  Frustration is rising within the criminal justice system and within our neighborhoods because as crimes are committed, the old ways of arrest/jail/release are not resolving the problems we continue to see on the streets. And understandably so, because many of these “survival crimes” are symptomatic of the larger public health problems, and the crimes will keep recurring until we address the root causes.

Since the “System Failure” report was released, I’ve heard from many that we just need to put people in jail and essentially throw away the key.  Being “tough on crime” by jailing may seem to some like a quick answer to “cleaning up our streets”.  It’s easy to think this will solve our problems.

But we’ve tried that “tough on crime” approach before with little long-term success.  Think back to the Reagan years, the federal and state laws allocated funds for more prisons and for students DARE programs (remember Just Say No?).   The now universally-recognized opinion is that creating mandatory jail and prison sentences has had few long-term successes for communities and fewer positive results for those imprisoned.

The criminal justice system won’t solve the problems raised in the report simply by doing more of the same. We need a different regional approach.  Fortunately, we have the research and the tools at hand to make effective changes.

City Attorney Pete Holmes stated, “Nearly all prolific offenders commit crimes rooted in mental health and/or chemical dependency issues. 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 respective sentences.”

As a former prosecuting attorney, I know the intersection between crime, mental health, and behavioral health is the point where smart investments can make significant differences.  By combining the expertise of the communities most impacted by the criminal justice system and retargeting investments through a public health model, we can make improvements and make our region safer for everyone.  To make these changes effective, we must also have our eyes wide open to acknowledge the role of structural and institutional racism in our criminal justice system.

Over the past decade, our police, City Attorney and King County Prosecuting Attorney, judges and other system reformers have worked together to identify ways to address the root causes of “survival crimes”. The good news is that attitudes are shifting in support of a public health model.  The bad news is that the speed of systemic changes has been glacial.

Our former Sheriff Sue Rahr said over a decade ago that real crime prevention starts with a community dedicated to supporting all families, providing skills and job training so people can earn enough money to pay their bills, offering affordable housing across the region, providing affordable access to healthcare and health insurance, and making good public schools available in every neighborhood. In other words, our criminal justice system is most effective when we spend our tax money on prevention rather than incarceration.

Some people who have contacted my office believe that Seattle and King County police, prosecutors and judges are not interested in in making changes to the criminal justice system.  That is not my experience.   While police and prosecutors and judges do arrest, charge, and convict people, particularly those who commit violent crimes, most want solutions that improve outcomes.

Our community resources are wasted when a person who has a history of mental illness or drug addiction, is incarcerated.  Not only are resources wasted but it’s cruel. We know incarceration is traumatic, and without treatment or a holistic release plan, incarceration won’t prevent crimes being committed again.

Fortunately, options are within our grasp.

At this time we are seeing successes through our investments in programs such as DESC’s HOST program that offers outreach, case management, and drop-in services for those experiencing mental illnesses; the Law Enforcement Diversion Program (LEAD) which diverts individuals from the criminal justice system by providing wrap around case management services; and Familiar Faces Vital Pilot Program that provides intensive and integrated services for individuals who are jailed.    Additionally, through our budget process last year, Seattle Council dedicated funding to realign our justice system with our values of providing needed assistance, not perpetuating a disjointed system.   And most importantly, we need much more housing and dedicated units for people suffering from behavioral issues and the state legislature knows that too.

At the state and regional level, community leaders recognize the importance of a person-centered approach to invest in mental health and drug treatment and supportive housing.   Many legislators also know that breaking the “survival-crimes” cycle requires a coordinated approach.  This is hopeful.

For next steps, I recommend we invite leaders in our criminal justice system, including people most impacted by the system, key service providers, such as mental health, public health, and housing providers to take some agreed upon actions on an accelerated time schedule that will result in measurable individual outcomes.  We will achieve this by:

  1. Expanding buprenorphine and medically assisted treatment centers to help stabilize individual’s substance use disorders so it is available when and where individuals need it.
  2. Funding mental health treatment and mental health outreach services
  3. Funding the expansion of addiction treatment and detox facilities
  4. Expanding programs such as LEAD which divert individuals from the criminal justice system into supportive and intensive case management
  5. Adding health respite beds within the city and county
  6. Adding mental health day centers within the city and county
  7. Expanding emergency shelters into 24/hour shelters
  8. Creating more permanent supportive housing across the region
  9. Including those who have been imprisoned in the conversations
  10. Asking police, prosecutors, judges what they need to stop the spin cycle and improve conditions for all of us.
  11. Advocate for SB 5444/HB 1513 relating to diverting individuals from jail to community behavioral healthcare and requiring Department of Social and Health Services to collaborate with the Health Care Authority to ensure that supportive housing intensive case management, and assertive community treatment are available for individuals involved with the criminal justice system.
  12. Advocate for House Bill (HB) 1393/Senate Bill (SB) 5432 relating to the full implementation of behavioral health integration.
  13. Advocate for HB 1394/ SB 5431 relating to behavioral health facilities and programs needed to ensure a continuum of care for behavioral health patients.
  14. Advocate for HB 1593/SB 5516 – Establishes new psychiatric teaching hospital that would be affiliated with the University of Washington.

We are committed to immediate and strategic regional action that will result in these important system changes.

Sally Bagshaw, Asha, Alyson, Lena and Emily

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