A Response to System Failure

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I recently received a report called System Failure from several business organizations that described individuals committing extensive amounts of often problematic activity. The report provided an in-depth look at 100 individuals that have the highest frequency of problematic behavior in Seattle and how the criminal justice system has not remedied any of the issues. I agree with the report’s findings in that our current criminal justice response is not working and we as a City should be making deeper investments in evidence-based strategies.

One example is my continued support of the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) program, which is an arrest diversion program that provides a credible alternative to booking people into jail for criminal activity which stems from unmet behavioral health needs or poverty. A study showed that compared to a control group, LEAD participants had 60% lower likelihood of arrest during the six months subsequent to evaluation. Because of the program’s success, LEAD has been replicated in over 90 other cities nationwide. Despite the presence of LEAD in our community, neighborhoods still experience a breadth of problematic behaviors. Bringing the LEAD program to scale citywide with significantly more resources will allow us to saturate more deeply and intervene in many of these types of behaviors. Additionally, a handful of the 100 individuals identified in the report are already LEAD and have complex trauma histories in addition to dual diagnoses. We often see a manifestation of this through substance abuse as a trauma response or method of symptom management due to lack of access to low-barrier mental health services. A report from Mental Health America named Washington state ranking number 48 out of 50 for how well the state funds and serves people with mental health challenges. As a City, we have not found the resources to address that gap and provide the totality of mental health services. Additionally, all of the 100 individuals do not have access to housing, and many are chronically homeless, which often means an individual has several barriers to accessing housing.

I absolutely support providing housing to these types of individuals as an evidence-based strategy, as it has also proven to be less costly than jail. This strategy has been thoroughly studied at the Downtown Emergency Service Center property called 1811 Eastlake. 1811 Eastlake opened in 2005 and provides supportive housing to 75 formerly homeless adults with chronic alcohol addiction. It is the first of its kind in Washington to address the needs of homeless chronic alcoholics who are the heaviest users of publicly-funded crisis services, which are greatly comparable to the report’s 100 individuals. The housing at 1811 Eastlake is affordable, accessible, provided through a harm-reduction and housing-first approach, which aims to quickly provide housing without preconditions and barriers to entry. Research on the housing program found that the median costs for residents the year prior to being housed were $4,066 per person per month in publicly-funded services such as jail, hospitalization and detox centers while the monthly median costs dropped to $1,492 and $958 after six and 12 months in housing. But scaling these successes would take more resources. Often referred to as Permanent Supportive Housing, this housing for chronically homeless people that includes social services has historically been funded by the federal government. Decades of defunding have left local jurisdictions with immense challenges.

We know that these strategies work and that they need more resources and this report adds to the urgency around deploying more of this resource. It is clear that the status quo is not working. It’s not working for these 100 individuals or any Seattle residents and continues to cause negative impacts inside our neighborhoods. As a City, we must continue investing in the strategies that work, as well as find and leverage more resources to saturate Seattle with evidence-based solutions. We also need all forms of government, not just the City of Seattle, to adequately fund these strategies. Until then, we will be left with the status quo of prolific offenders.