By Paul Kiefer
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office debuted a plan on Tuesday to identify the people who frequently commit crime—so-called “high utilizers of the criminal justice system”—to prioritize these people for bookings into the King County jail or for referral to mental health or addiction treatment services. So far, the office says it has compiled a list of 118 “high utilizers” who, according to City Attorney Ann Davison, “create a disproportionate impact on public safety in Seattle.”
But the initiative may run into an obstacle in the near future: The service providers the initiative will rely on to provide case management may be stretched thin by the surge of new “high utilizer” clients.
The initiative mirrors similar projects that the City Attorney’s Office launched in 2012 and 2019 to identify “high utilizers,” although earlier iterations of the program favored the terms “high-impact offenders” or “prolific offenders” to describe the people considered high priorities for law enforcement. Scott Lindsay, a public safety advisor to former mayor Ed Murray who led the charge to focus police resources on “prolific offenders” in 2019, is now deputy city attorney.
This time, said Davison spokesman Anthony Derrick, the city attorney’s basic goal is to create a working list of people who frequently interact with the criminal justice system, including notes on “who they are, what they’ve been through, and what we’ve tried that didn’t work in the past.” Every person on their initial list has been referred by police to the City Attorney’s Office 12 or more times in the past five years and at least once in the past eight months, most often for theft or trespassing.
As a starting point, Derrick added that the city attorney’s office reached an agreement with the King County Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention to book “high utilizers” into jail for low-level crimes that wouldn’t generally land someone in custody. “It’s a chance for us to get people with a long history of challenges off the street, at least for the time being, so we have a bit of time to try to intervene,” Derrick said.
King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal views the initiative as a repetition of a failed strategy. “Over the last decade, the city has repeatedly announced similarly named initiatives that would focus more law enforcement resources on those already most policed as a strategy for addressing public safety,” she said. “This tired strategy of arresting, prosecuting, and jailing is expensive and clearly ineffective.”
Lisa Daugaard, the co-executive director of the Public Defender Association and a co-founder of the diversion program LEAD, however, sees the potential for success. She says, the initiative is built on a solid foundation—addressing the needs of “high utilizers” on a case-by-case basis. She believes Davison could avoid the errors of past crackdowns by pushing her counterparts in city and county government to expand programs like LEAD to accommodate a new surge in clients.
If LEAD took on on all 118 people as new clients, she added, it would be unable to take on any additional clients for the foreseeable future, including people who the city attorney’s office might add to the “high utilizers” list.
“We might not have the capacity we need,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean the city attorney can’t advocate for more capacity for us… The fact that there aren’t the ideal resources to care for someone doesn’t mean we should avoid having a conversation about what to do. The best thing we can do is sit around a table and talk through our options.”
Daugaard added that Davison’s appointment of Natalie Walton-Anderson as the new head of the city attorney’s criminal division, gives her hope that the office is serious about including service providers in the decision-making process about how to work with someone on the “high utilizer” list. In her previous role as King County deputy prosecuting attorney, Walton-Anderson supervised a partnership between LEAD and the King County Prosecutor’s Office.
She reasons that the City Attorney’s Office and the Seattle Police Department may not need to rely on arrests and booking to reach people on the “high utilizer” list in the future. “Just because people are under arrest doesn’t mean they need to go to the jail. That decision falls to police, not the prosecutors.”
Daugaard added that she hopes the City Attorney’s Office will be receptive to the message that jailing so-called “high utilizers” may not improve public safety in the long run. “Unless the circumstances that land people on the list are addressed—a lack of legal income and trauma, among other things—no quote-unquote treatment strategy in jail is going to make a difference in a person’s behavior,” she said. “If there’s a table and we’re invited to it, I will argue strenuously that jail is not the place to invest resources.”
We have reached out to SPD to ask whether the department plans to direct officers to resume making post-arrest referrals to LEAD; in the past year, LEAD received most of its referrals from non-police sources, ranging from the City Attorney’s Office and the Seattle Fire Department to neighborhood business associations.
Currently, 16 of the 118 people currently on the City Attorney’s “high utilizer” list are already in custody at the King County jail: 10 for misdemeanor offenses and six for felonies. Whether anyone on that list stays in jail for the long term, Derrick added, is a decision for the Seattle Municipal Court and King County Superior Court. The Seattle Municipal Court is already processing a surge of new cases from the City Attorney’s Office, which filed more than twice as many charges in the final week of February as it did in the first week of January.