By Erica C. Barnett
Six months ago, City Attorney Ann Davison announced a new initiative that would target so-called high utilizers of the criminal justice system—people with more than 12 misdemeanor referrals in the last five years—by subjecting their actions to greater scrutiny, excluding them from community court, and keeping them in jail for months, much longer than current misdemeanor booking restrictions allow.
Since launching the High Utilizers Initiative in February, the city attorney’s office has filed charges against people on the list 82 percent of the time, compared to a 63 percent charging rate for all misdemeanor cases so far this year. In 2021, under former city attorney Pete Holmes, the office charged people meeting the new “high utilizer” standard just 58 percent of the time. The initiative was also supposed prioritize this group for mental health services and treatment.
So far, the initiative has resulted mostly in more charges for people on the list, although the city attorney’s office says additional policy proposals are coming.
“We are declining fewer cases for this population than for the overall population,” deputy city attorney Scott Lindsay said. “I think it tells us that this effort is doing exactly what Ann said it would do: For individuals who are repeatedly having a significant disruptive impact on their neighborhood, we are trying to make sure that they are not slipping through the cracks.”
The initiative also allows the city to keep people on the list in jail for longer, bypassing rules that have prohibiting most misdemeanor bookings. “When somebody has a record of 35, 40 criminal cases and then they have a new property destruction case in Ballard and they’re saying you can’t do anything about that, that doesn’t make sense,” Lindsay said.
Critics of the high utilizers initiative argue, citing considerable research, that repeatedly jailing people who are homeless and suffer from significant behavioral health conditions does not reduce crime and makes the people being incarcerated sicker and less likely to be able to thrive in their communities. Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said the people on the high utilizers list “should not be subject to jail booking or prosecution for misdemeanor offenses; instead, they should be introduced to service providers who can develop community support and housing options without the hindrance and destabilization caused by repeated jailing and prosecution.”
“It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney. What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”—Anita Khandelwal, director, King County Department of Public Defense
Lisa Daugaard, co-director of the Public Defender Association, whose programs serve people involved in the criminal legal system, said creating a list of people who are frequently arrested for misdemeanors isn’t a “good thing nor a bad thing by itself. It could be helpful if it caused local authorities to come up with a plan for these people’s situation, which is highly likely in need of a plan or support or intervention.”
So far, Daugaard acknowledges, the focus has been on the enforcement side.
“If they are choosing to file against people on the list more often, to me, that means we’re not getting busy making plans proactively for people who we already know are in difficult situations,” she said. “There should be a lot of energy pushing for programming and placement options that just don’t exist for this population right now—and they would have a lot of allies.”
PubliCola obtained a copy of the most recent high utilizers roster, from July, and reviewed the recent criminal and legal histories of each of the 111 people on the list. Two things stand out right away. First, the vast majority of people on the list are either homeless or show signs of housing instability; fewer than 10 had consistent residential addresses in the Seattle area. Second, most “high utilizers” show signs of major behavioral conditions, including addiction and mental illness.
In many cases, people’s behavioral health issues were so severe that a Seattle Municipal Court judge has recently questioned their ability to understand the charges against them and participate in their own defense, a process used to determine, among other things, if a case can proceed. Nearly half, or about 54, have been ordered to undergo a competency evaluation within the last year, and 30 have been found incompetent multiple times—a high bar that requires not just a transient lack of understanding (which might be caused by drug use) but a profound underlying mental health condition.
Prosecuting such people, Khadelwal says, is pointless and counterproductive. “It’s hard to overstate the cruelty—and futility—of incarcerating a person who is not able to understand what is happening or to assist their attorney,” Khandelwal said. “What’s more, incarceration is destabilizing and leads to an increased risk of a person dying by suicide—as we have repeatedly seen happen at the King County Jail over the past year.”
Katie landed on the high utilizers list after racking up more than two dozen separate charges in the last five years—everything from tampering with a fire alarm to vehicle prowling to pedestrian interference, for walking in the middle of busy Rainier Avenue South. She spends most of her time in Ballard, despite restraining orders and arrests and people warning her, over and over, to stay out of the area. She has a connection to the neighborhood—it’s where her family once lived, she has told officers and court officials and anyone who will listen, and where her “street family” lives now.
Mostly, Katie’s charges involve stealing from, screaming at, and harassing employees and patrons of businesses and institutions in Ballard’s commercial core, including retail stores, a car dealership, and the Seattle Public Library. Typically, she will enter a business, yell and knock things down, and run off with random items, such as pile of Starbucks paper cups a barista set outside one day. For just one person, people familiar with Katie say, her impact is tremendous; she might enter a single business multiple times a day, causing havoc and running out only to return a few hours later.
Katie has also assaulted people directly—pulling an earring off a waitress who told her to go away, attacking an employee at St. Luke’s Presbyterian Church, which offers daily meals from its building across from the Ballard Commons. St. Luke’s is among at least half a dozen Ballard businesses that have a no-contact order barring Katie from coming within 1,000 feet of their property—an almost unprecedented move for a church whose institutional mission includes serving Ballard’s homeless population. Earlier this year, because of her status as a “high utilizer,” she was detained for nearly five months at the King County Jail; when she got out, she went straight back to Ballard, where she was promptly arrested—not for harming anyone, but for simply being there.
This time, the city attorney’s office didn’t seek to keep Katie in jail , and she was released two days after her arrest. But her months-long stay in jail had consequences she was still living through. During that period, her name had come up on a waiting list for housing, but no one noticed; as a result, she missed a crucial deadline and fell off the list. Now, after case conferencing that included representatives from the city attorney’s office, she’s staying in a tiny house in a neighborhood across town. But she’s still barred from most of Ballard, which will make it hard for her to avoid arrest in the future.
Despite her erratic behavior, Katie has been found competent at least once, after two previous incompetency findings. Her most recent evaluation, in February, concluded that she was competent to stand trial as long as she stayed away from drugs—a conclusion that shows one of the limits of “competency” as a measure of behavioral health.
Peter, another “high utilizer” who has been found incompetent to stand trial repeatedly, most recently in July, frequents the University District, where his name is on a private list of high-impact individuals maintained by the University District Partnership (UDP), which represents businesses in the area.
“There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”—Daniel Malone, Director, Downtown Emergency Service Center
Peter—also a pseudonym—has been arrested repeatedly for walking into businesses, stealing small items—a can of Campbell’s chicken and dumpling soup, an Ace bandage, a bottle of A&W root beer—and threatening employees who catch him or tell him to leave. He says things like, “If you stop me, I have a gun and I will kill you,” and “fuck you, I’ll kick your ass,” and “if you call the police, I will murder you,” according to police reports. On occasion, he’s taken a swing or tried to “head butt” a clerk. Once, he grabbed a “small pink pen knife” from a homeless woman’s cart and pointing it toward a Safeway clerk, Other than the pen knife, which he returned to the woman who owned it, police reports do not indicate that has ever been caught carrying a weapon.
Peter is also, as his many incompetency findings make clear, profoundly disabled, to the point that he’s frequently incapable of carrying on a coherent conversation. He may be “terrorizing” a neighborhood, but he’s also lost in his own delusions of money, grandeur, and persecution; it’s hard to imagine him understanding the nature of the charges against him, much less sitting still in front of a judge and testifying in his own defense.
“We have a lot of clients who are just so gravely disabled that you’re not going to get the same result if you tell them to do something” the way you would with most people, said Ailene Richard, the North Seattle LEAD supervisor for the homeless outreach organization REACH. “They’re not internalizing information in the same way. You have to ask people, what is your motivator? Why do you keep stealing things? Even to do that takes relationship building and trust building.”
The UDP participates in case conferencing—a process that involves sitting down with representatives from Mayor Bruce Harrell’s office, neighborhood organizations, LEAD, REACH, and the city attorney’s office and figuring out how to address and assist people who are having a negative impact on local residents and businesses. But for cases like Peter’s, UDP president Don Blakeney says, they’re at a loss.
“What is the solution for someone who is having a negative impact on the neighborhood but is not really a great candidate for behavioral change?” Blakeney said. “Those kind of people on the list are going to be hard [to deal with]—they can’t keep impacting the neighborhood the way they do because it’s terrifying of folks who are stuck in one place,” such as behind the counter at a retail store. “If you get to a point in the neighborhood where people are doing that every day, it has a cumulative impact.”
The Downtown Seattle Association, which supported previous efforts to crack down on drug dealing and sales of stolen goods such as the short-lived Operation New Day, also supports the high utilizers initiative. But the group’s CEO, Jon Scholes, says simply arresting people and releasing them back into the community without health care and housing won’t address the impact high utilizers have on the neighborhood or help them access the services and housing they need. “There’s very few people in our constituency who want to lock up mentally ill people forever—they they want to reduce the impact [and] they want a better outcome.”
Unlike the University District and SoDo neighborhoods, which have access to case conferencing, Scholes said the city and service providers “haven’t set that kind of table with us and other [business] groups. We’ve never set aside the housing and other services that are really needed for this population. …A list is just a list if there’s no meaningful intervention that’s being offered.”
Both Katie and Peter, along with many others on the high utilizers list, are connected with case managers from groups like REACH and LEAD, which work with unhoused people facing charges and those who have co-occurring behavioral health conditions, including mental illness and addiction. But identifying appropriate housing and services for people with huge, sometimes lifelong, challenges takes time, even years, and in the meantime, the prescription from the city attorney’s office often prioritizes immediate neighborhood demands.
And even some homeless service providers say there are times when jail is justified. Staffers for the Downtown Emergency Service Center, which has provided (or currently provides) shelter or housing for many of the people on the high utilizers list, call police when a client assaults another client or threatens guests or staff—as happened earlier this month, when a man on the list exposed himself to residents and staff at DESC’s Hobson Place apartments.
“When I first heard about the so-called high-utilizers program,” Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid said, he hoped Davison’s office would “gather certain information on people who are having a high impact on the community” and “figure out how to address them in a useful way. That is not what happened. Instead, we were handed a list of people who we were told were not eligible for the primary diversion program at the court, and we were not offered a solution other than the primary solution of putting people in jail.”
“We’re supposed to [call police] not just when we’re upset at a lack of compliance or cooperation, but when it’s reached a point where we’re unable to manage the situation safely and effectively,” Malone said. “There may be a reason to incarcerate a person to keep them away from everybody else and stop them from doing that [behavior] for some period of time. But does state punishment itself cause a positive change in people? I think the answer is clearly, no, it does not.”
Richard said going in and out of jail all the time can cause “tremendous” harm—”jail is not a therapeutic place.” At the same time, jail can provide “a sort of break from everything they’re usually doing,” she added. “Sometimes if we’ve had trouble finding that client, that’s a way we can contact them. It is sometimes the only opportunity that we have to be able to meet with certain folks who we have not been able to find on outreach.”
Seattle Municipal Court Judge Damon Shadid oversees community court, an alternative to mainstream criminal court that offers access to services such as mental health and addiction treatment, occupational therapy, and life skills classes. He says the city attorney’s office needs to demonstrate, with clear evidence, that jail is helping not just businesses and neighborhood residents but the people who are being jailed over and over again with few visible results. “If they’re going to charge these people more, they need to prove that they’re having a positive impact.” So far, he said, they haven’t done so.
Instead, Davison took action early in her term to specifically deny access to community court to anyone on the list, arguing that people who commit the same offenses repeatedly need strict accountability, not treatment and classes. Davison, and Lindsay, especially objected to the fact that community court is a “release first” model, which gives people who enter the program the benefit of the doubt instead of, as Khandelwal put it recently, keeping people in jail “simply because they are too poor to post bail.”
Shadid vociferously opposed Davison’s request, and is now facing an election challenge from an assistant city attorney, Nyjat Rose-Akins, who has support from former mayor Jenny Durkan, an ex-SPD East Precinct chief, and controversial former municipal court judge Ed McKenna, who retired in 2020 amid allegations of bias and became a vocal, bombastic advocate for a law-and-order approach to crime.
Seventy-seven of the people on the list have been charged with at least one misdemeanor since Davison announced the initiative, and about two dozen have been jailed for at least one month. Thirty-eight are currently in jail, awaiting release back into the community.
Shadid says community court is aimed at precisely the kind of people who end up on the high utilizers list—even those with behavioral health conditions, such as addiction, that make it hard for them to show up to appointments or stick to a routine. While “there are certain people who are completely inappropriate for community court, because it doesn’t have the tools to deal with them and get them the services that they need,” Shadid said, most people with multiple offenses could succeed in community court if they had the chance to opt in, which can’t happen until someone actually shows up in court. Once people have the opportunity to enroll, he said, 90 percent do, and 75 percent graduate.
“When I first heard about the so-called high-utilizers program,” Shadid continued, he hoped the city attorney’s office would “gather certain information on people who are having a high impact on the community” and convene a discussion with service providers, defense attorneys, and judges to “figure out how to address them in a useful way. That is not what happened. Instead, we were handed a list of people who we were told were not eligible for the primary diversion program at the court, and we were not offered a solution other than the primary solution of putting people in jail.”
Service providers agreed that it isn’t creating a list itself that’s the problem; it’s how the list is used that matters.
“The folks who are on the high utilizers list are largely very unwell folks who need a lot of extra behavioral health and mental health attention, and we’ve been saying this to the city for a long time: If you want things to be different, you have to look at a lot of options for mental health and substance use issues,” Richard, from REACH, said. “I think the kind of solutions that we’re looking for are not simple or easy and therefore people don’t want to do them.”
Malone said there’s actually a precedent for creating a list designed to facilitate solutions for people with complex challenges, not punishment: The county’s 2013 Familiar Faces Initiative, which proposed an integrated system of case management and health care for people leaving jail. The program was never fully implemented.
“I don’t have a problem with the concept of creating a list and using it to inform action, especially when that action is designed to improve the person’s condition and thereby minimize repetition” of problematic behavior, Malone said.
But, he added, “it’s not like flipping a switch, where you take somebody who’s in a really terrible space in life and surround them with a decent place to live, and care and support, and everything’s different. Sometimes things get way better very, very quickly. Invariably they get better at least over time. And sometimes, even when they get better, you might be going from a really tough spot to a less tough spot” and people still may continue committing crimes.
Daugaard, from LEAD, says she hasn’t given up hope that Davison’s high utilizers initiative will lead to positive outcomes for people on the list, and notes that the city attorney’s office already participates in case conferencing that can lead to housing or release from jail.
For now, though, the high utilizers list remains primarily a tool for prosecution and jail, not services and housing. Seventy-seven of the people on the list have been charged with at least one misdemeanor since Davison announced the initiative, and about two dozen have been jailed for at least one month. Thirty-eight are currently in jail, awaiting release back into the community.
Correction: This article originally misattributed a quote to Lisa Daugaard that was actually from Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay. The article has been edited to remove the quote, which read: “We’ve gotten all three of those partners—the jail, the municipal court, and SPD—to focus and coordinate around this population, and we are having a decent level of cooperation with the service providers, so we are not acting at cross purposes.”