As Council Seeks Funding for Successful Arrest Diversion Program, Mayor Proposes “Doubling Down on Probation”

Mayor Jenny Durkan began rolling out her public-safety budget in mid-September.

Several council members expressed skepticism at Mayor Jenny Durkan’s plan to deal with so-called “prolific offenders” Monday, wondering aloud why the proposals were still so ill-defined and expressing concern that they contradicted an earlier work group’s recommendations to focus spending on things like prevention and restorative justice rather than traditional criminal-justice responses like probation.

As I reported last month, Durkan’s plan—which came out of a work group that was made up almost entirely of elected officials, judges, prosecutors, and government staffers—would create a number of new programs inside the criminal justice system, including expanded probation and a new “rapid-reentry connector” who would refer people leaving jail after short periods to shelter and services. The work group that came up with last year’s recommendations, in contrast, was led by the Office for Civil Rights and “centered the voices and leadership of those who have lived experience of incarceration.”

Council member Lorena Gonzalez, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, said she had “concerns about the mayor’s proposal to continue to double down on probation, particularly for this population. I continue to believe that [probation] is not the best use of our dollars, nor that it will actually address the needs of individuals who have many complex co-morbidities”—issues like addiction and mental illness. Council members Bruce Harrell and Sally Bagshaw defended Durkan’s plan, particularly the “enhanced probation” proposal, noting that several municipal court judges had endorsed the proposal. “I’m hearing from judges that it’s in alignment with restorative justice, not a very penalizing probation system,” Harrell said. Bagshaw invited Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid to the microphone to defend the current probation system—he called Gonzalez’s description of probation “simply not accurate—prompting Kshama Sawant to complain that advocates for alternatives to probation weren’t given any time to speak.

Part of the problem is that it’s unclear what, exactly, the $532,000 Durkan has proposed spending on three new programs—expanded probation, the jail referral staffer, and a new case conferencing pilot that would bring law enforcement officials together to discuss “high-barrier” clients’ cases—will buy. All three programs are still in the planning phase, and have not been analyzed for race and social justice impacts or for effectiveness. For example, Gonzalez asked, what it saved more money and produced better outcomes to simply not jail people for very short periods instead of providing them “reentry” services when they get out?

“I have concerns about the mayor’s proposal to continue to double down on probation, particularly for this population”—Council public safety chair Lorena Gonzalez

As for the probation program, Gonzalez said, “We have no idea what this is other than the adjective that it will be ‘enhanced.’ I don’t know what that means. It has not been clearly defined. We have no performance metrics.”

All of the mayor’s proposals are pilot programs, which means they won’t cost much money (the biggest-ticket item in Durkan’s “high-barrier individuals” bucket, funding for a new enhanced shelter in the decommissioned west wing of the county jail, is uncontroversial) and are unlikely have a major impact if the council does decide to fund them. (The council could also place the proposals under a budget proviso—essentially, a funding hold—until the mayor provides more information about the programs.)

The discussion of the mayor’s proposal came directly before a separate, but related, conversation about funding for a program that approaches low-level crimes from a completely different perspective ]—Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, a pre-arrest diversion program that provides case management and services to people caught committing misdemeanor crimes in certain parts of the city.

LEAD, which began as a pilot program in Belltown in 2011, has a funding problem: The city has expanded the program to serve a huge swathe of the city, but hasn’t added enough funding for the nonprofit Public Defender Association, which runs LEAD, to keep up with the number of people who want to participate. This has put a strain created a huge case backload, and put major strain on the program’s 19 case managers, who will be doing the work of 58 caseworkers by the end of the year, according to PDA director Lisa Daugaard. LEAD advocates are seeking $4.7 million in additional funding next year to allow the program to serve hundreds of new clients, give workers a raise, and reduce caseloads to 25 per case manager. Bagshaw indicated Monday that she hoped LEAD would be able to make up some of the gap with private funding, reducing pressure on the city’s budget and theoretically allowing the council to fund both reform-minded programs aimed at keeping people out of jail and criminal-justice programs aimed at dealing with them once they get in.

Durkan also wants the council to re-up funding for her summer emphasis patrols, which directed extra police resources to seven neighborhoods (including Ballard, Fremont, and several downtown neighborhoods) where crime or “the perception of crime” had increased. Durkan’s proposal would add an eighth neighborhood, Alki, and $848,000 for additional overtime for SPD to fund the same patrols this year (last year, the city funded the patrols using one-time savings).

And finally, one item unrelated to the criminal justice budget: Council member Mike O’Brien wants to reallocate about $8.3 million from the sale of the Mercer Megablock to pay for one of two Bicycle Master Plan projects in Southeast Seattle that were eliminated in the most recent bike infrastructure proposal from the mayor’s office. The two projects—long-planned bike lanes on Beacon Ave. S. and Martin Luther King, Jr. Way S—each clock in at about $8 million. O’Brien said completing one or the other will provide one (and only one) safe connection for cyclists between Southeast Seattle and downtown before the Move Seattle levy runs out and is up for renewal.

Council member Debora Juarez, who is supported by the group that killed another long-planned protected bike lane, on 35th Ave. NE, suggested (inaccurately) that O’Brien was trying to poach all of the $16.7 million in Mercer Megablock proceeds that are dedicated to pedestrian and bike safety projects. At Friday’s budget meeting, Juarez noted that two people were recently killed while trying to cross the street in her district. “My main concern is about why we should redirect $16 million of funding from across Seattle to only one area, Southeast Seattle,” she said.

O’Brien—aware, no doubt, of recent rumors that he wanted to repurpose funding meant for pedestrian improvements on Lake City Way and NE 43rd Street to pay for bike lanes in Southeast Seattle—reassured Juarez that his plan didn’t touch her district’s projects, and said he would show her how bike riders in Southeast Seattle have been neglected by the city. “There are other investments that will be happening throughout the city, and it feels like Southeast Seattle is a bit of a void,” he said.