Category: Courts

Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group

Image via seattle.gov.

By Paul Kiefer

In early November, in a hallway on the tenth floor of the Seattle Justice Center, a middle-aged man in an untucked polo shirt waited for his name to be called. In the courtroom next to him, Seattle Municipal Court Judge Adam Eisenberg was wrapping up a string of DUI probation hearings; in the hallway, defense attorneys mingled with anxious probationers, none of whom looked pleased to be there on a Monday afternoon.

Judge Eisenberg spoke to the DUI defendants in a firm, measured tone. “We’re very excited that you’ll be going to law school,” he told a young man who turned up in a tidy suit, “but it’s also a little alarming that you’re here.”

But the judge’s demeanor softened when the man in the polo shirt walked through the courtroom’s double doors and took his place at the defendant’s table. “How are you feeling? How is everything going?” he asked. Immediately, the interaction felt far more personal than the hearings that preceded it.

The man is one of roughly 60 participants in the court’s Domestic Violence Intervention Program (DVIP), a treatment program for defendants with misdemeanor domestic violence convictions that provides court monitoring, group and individual counseling, and referrals to substance abuse or mental health treatment providers as necessary. The program, which is still in its pilot stage, has been operating with little publicity or fanfare since June 2018. However, with alternatives to policing and incarceration front-and-center in Seattle’s political discourse, DVIP has taken on new significance as one of several promising experimental public safety programs in the city.

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Unlike people facing charges for misdemeanors like shoplifting or drug possession, domestic violence defendants haven’t received much attention—or sympathy—in recent discussions of alternatives to policing and incarceration. The belief that domestic abusers are best held accountable through probation or incarceration has not disappeared, but the shift towards a rehabilitative approach is relatively widespread. And while domestic violence offender treatment programs have existed for decades in the United States, until the past decade, most of those programs treated domestic abusers as fundamentally different from other criminal defendants.

“For a long time, domestic violence was siloed,” said Tara Richards, a professor of criminology at the University of Nebraska at Omaha who is leading an independent review of Seattle’s DVIP. Domestic abusers, she said, were typically treated as unique among violent offenders; as a consequence, they rarely received attention in conversations about rehabilitation. Continue reading “Domestic Violence Intervention Project Experiments with Restorative Justice for A Stigmatized Group”

Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution

Image via King County Elections

1. As the federal government and state police prepare for possible civil unrest on Election Night, the city of Seattle says it does not plan to physically open its Emergency Operations Center, which coordinates emergency response during crisis situations and extreme weather and public health events.

However, the Seattle Police Department has restricted time off for officers who may be deployed to respond to demonstrations during the week following the election, and the city has sent information to businesses in neighborhoods where protests are common, such as  Capitol Hill, about “how to prepare and secure their employees and customers as well as their property to mitigate the impact of broken windows and graffiti, should that occur,” according to a spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office.

As of November 1, 72 percent of ballots sent to registered voters in King County (and nearly 75 percent in Seattle) had been returned. Although Washington state votes by mail, the county has opened seven voting centers where people can vote in person until 8pm on election day, including two in Seattle.

Durkan’s spokeswoman said SPD “does not have any intelligence to indicate that there will be large-scale demonstrations on Election Night or the days following. Our partners at King County Elections have not reported any threats or security issues at any ballot boxes. As such, the SPD and Seattle Fire Department’s planning is for contingency purposes only, and does not indicate that there will be demonstrations or unrest.”

City council member Tammy Morales formerly introduced her proposed alternative to Durkan’s proposed replacement for the Navigation Team, called the HOPE Team, last week. The five-member team would be a scaled-back, service-focused version of the Outreach and Engagement Team proposed by Durkan and council member Andrew Lewis last month—a team that would itself be a kind of scaled-back Navigation Team, one that would put the members of the recently disbanded Navigation Team to work in new roles “coordinating” the work of the city’s contracted outreach providers.

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During the council budget hearing on Friday, Lewis suggested that the differences between his plan and Morales’ were minor, but said he wouldn’t co-sponsor her proposal “because of my involvement in a parallel process.” Last week, Morales told PubliCola she believes the language in Lewis’ proposal is still “vague” enough to allow members of the larger team to do direct outreach. “I think we need to leave that work to the service providers—to the folks that are out there every day and understand the importance of developing relationships,” Morales said.

The HOPE team would include a team manager, a liaison to coordinate with other departments like Seattle Public Utilities, which manages the “purple bag” encampment trash pickup program, one data analyst (read more about why one data person may not be enough for a team dedicated to coordinating outreach and shelter referrals here), and two “provider and neighborhood liaisons” who would work with King County Public Health and providers to “provide reasonable notification of a[n encampment] removal and time to plan and implement the relocation.” Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Planning for Civil Unrest, Dismantling the Navigation Team, and Rethinking Prosecution”

Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?

1. Will Mayor Jenny Durkan veto the city council’s budget?

It may seem early to start asking whether the mayor will reject the council’s revisions of her 2021 budget proposal, since the council is only at the midway point of the budget process. But as the potential amendments and substantive policy changes add up, it’s clear that the council is intent on restoring funds to  housing, grassroots community safety projects, and COVID relief—which means cutting into the mayor’s flagship priority, a $100 million “equitable investment” fund for “investments in BIPOC communities,” in the last budget before the next mayoral election.

Durkan first floated the concept of funding “$100 million in community-driven programs for Black youths and adults” at the height of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests, when every day produced new allegations of police brutality and overreach. A more detailed proposal came in September in the form of a plan to spend “$100 million on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] communities. Specifically, Durkan proposed setting $100 million aside in next year’s budget until a task force appointed by the mayor comes up with recommendations for spending it.

To pay for such a large line item in a year of budget cuts, Durkan’s budget plan relies on revenues from the JumpStart payroll tax, which the council allocated to COVID-19 relief and homelessness and housing projects.

Separately, Durkan’s plan also eliminates $10 million the council allocated this year to scale up community-led alternatives to policing. And it “abandons” $30 million that was allocated to equitable investment projects during the sale of the Mercer Megablock property and spends these “flexible funds” on “critical City services in the 2020 Revised Budget and 2021 Proposed Budget.”

The clawback of the Megablock proceeds is perhaps the clearest case of a promise broken. Just last year, Durkan stood in a vacant lot in South Lake Union—at the time, one of the largest and most valuable publicly owned properties in the city— and announced that proceeds from the $143 million sale would help fund affordable housing and other projects that combat displacement in gentrifying areas. “I believe that years from now, people will look back at this chance and say we seized an incredible opportunity to make our City better by reinvesting the proceeds directly in housing across Seattle,” Durkan said at the time.

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This funding promise was one reason progressive groups like Puget Sound Sage did not vocally oppose the project, council member Lisa Herbold noted Thursday. She joined council members Tammy Morales, Andrew Lewis, and council president Lorena González in supporting a proposal by Kshama Sawant to restore funding for the projects promised as part of the Megablock sale last year.

2. Herbold’s proposal to create a new “duress” defense for some people facing misdemeanor charges won’t be heard until after the council adopts the 2021 budget. On Wednesday, González said council staffers were already overloaded with more than 120 budget amendment requests from members.

She also questioned whether Herbold’s proposal—which Herbold says would save the city money by reducing the number of jail beds it has to pay for—is truly budget-related. And she suggested it might not actually save much money, because former mayor Mike McGinn signed a long-term jail contract that commits the city for 30 years to paying for jail beds that they aren’t using now. Continue reading “Morning Fizz: Will Durkan Veto the Council’s Budget?”

Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime

Screen shot from “Seattle Is Dying”

1. Scott Lindsay, a former mayoral public safety advisor whose report on “prolific offenders” featured prominently in the viral “Seattle Is Dying” video, published a broadside against city council member Lisa Herbold yesterday on the website of a new political nonprofit called Change Washington. In the piece, Lindsay accuses Herbold of sneaking legislation into the 2021 budget that would  “create a legal loophole that would open the floodgates to crime in Seattle, effectively nullifying the city’s ability to protect persons and property from most misdemeanor crimes” and “negat[ing] the majority of Seattle’s criminal code.”

Change Washington was incorporated at the end of 2019. Its principals are former state Sen. Rodney Tom, a conservative Democrat from Medina who caucused (and voted) with Republicans; Sally Poliak, a “centrist Republican” political consultant in Seattle; Steve Gordon, a Republican donor from Pacific, WA who runs the anti-tax group “Concerned Taxpayers of Washington State“; and former Zillow executive Greg Schwartz, who left the company last year vowing to focus his energy on “Seattle’s chaotic streets and government.”

In his post, Lindsay refers to himself as a “dyed-in-the-wool blue Democrat.”

Lindsay’s claims about legalizing crime come from an extremely broad reading of a draft bill crafted with input from Decriminalize Seattle and King County Equity Now and posted on the website of the King County Department of Public Defense. Lindsay appears unaware that these groups participated in the drafting of the bill, and even claims that they have never expressed any support for its basic concepts. And despite Lindsay’s claim that Herbold is using an elaborate “backdoor” strategy to “[keep] the proposed legislation almost entirely hidden from the public,” Herbold has not actually proposed any legislation. Council staffers are still working on a draft, one of many bills the council will propose as part of the budget process.

Nor would the bill Lindsay incorrectly identifies as Herbold’s actually legalize crime. Instead, the county public defenders’ draft proposes several new defenses against prosecution for crimes that result from poverty or an unmanaged mental health or addiction disorder. Among other (welcome) changes, the bill would prevent prosecutors from throwing a person with untreated mental illness in jail because he broke a store window during a psychotic episode, or pressing charges against a hungry person because he stole food. It would not create a get-out-of-jail-free card for anyone who commits a crime and then claims to have—as Lindsay glibly puts it—”depression, anxiety, etc.”

Herbold says it’s high time the city reconsider its approach to offenses that result from poverty and lack of access to health care and housing. “As we’ve seen in the massive national and international protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd, it is past time that we reexamine our systems which often perpetuate homelessness and economic instability,” she says. “The City currently spends approximately $20 million a year on incarceration, which is known to significantly increase the risk of housing instability and homelessness.” The council will discuss the proposal at its budget meeting Wednesday.

Lindsay’s arguments will almost certainly find purchase in right-wing talk radio and on TV chat shows whose ratings depend on keeping audiences in a perpetual state of fear. There will always be a large contingent of people, even in liberal Seattle, who don’t believe that crimes that result from poverty or untreated mental illness really exist. To these people, Lindsay’s assertion that defendants would only have to “claim drug or alcohol addiction” or fake a mental illness to evade justice will make sense. It’s easier to believe in a world where shady defense attorneys argue, as Lindsay predicts they will, that “drugs are a ‘basic need” for someone with a substance use disorder” to than to consider the possibility that throwing people in jail for being addicted, mentally ill, or poor doesn’t actually work.

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2. After the city council passed legislation establishing a new “outreach and engagement team” to coordinate the city’s response to unauthorized encampments, you might think Mayor Jenny Durkan would be thrilled. After all, the team keeps most members of the Navigation Team on the city payroll, while leaving the question of what, exactly, the team will do.

Instead, the mayor responded to the 7-1 vote by reigniting the debate over the council’s 2020 budget rebalancing package, which Durkan vetoed (unsuccessfully) after the council voted to eliminate the Navigation Team. In a statement Monday night, Durkan characterized the council’s vote as a decision to “restor[e] funding for the Human Services Department to coordinate homelessness outreach” and called the legislation “similar to previously proposed legislation negotiated in August” that would have kept the Navigation Team intact.  Continue reading “Morning Fizz: As City Hall Moves Closer to Agreement on Homeless Outreach, “Seattle Is Dying” Star Claims the Council Wants to Legalize Crime”

After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree

New Consent Decree Monitor Dr. Antonio Oftelie. Photo via Leadership for a Networked World.

By Paul Kiefer

Merrick Bobb, who served for seven years as the court-appointed monitor for reforms to the Seattle Police Department mandated by the Department of Justice in a 2012 agreement between the city and federal government known as a consent decree, quietly resigned from his position on August 31.

In a letter explaining his decision, Bobb expressed dismay that SPD’s responses to this summer’s protests left him wondering whether “lessons learned and techniques trained under the consent decree were lost, or, at least, set aside.” Looking beyond the department’s protest response, Bobb also pointed to SPD’s “‘bizarre and arcane’ discipline and accountability systems” (referring to the language of one of his team’s earlier reports on SPD) as another primary reason for the department to remain under federal oversight.

US District Judge James Robart appointed Dr. Antonio Oftelie, a fellow at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, to replace Bobb as monitor. Robart appointed Monisha Harrell, the board chair of Equal Rights Washington and a (now outgoing) Community Police Commission commissioner, as deputy monitor. In a new order on Monday, Robart also appointed two associate monitors: Matthew Barge, a senior consultant at the Policing Project at the New York University School of Law, and Ronald Ward, a Seattle attorney who served as deputy monitor alongside Merrick Bobb.

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Oftelie is stepping into the monitor role at a time when the position demands a heavier hand than Bobb has provided since Robart ruled that the city was in compliance with the consent decree in 2018. After that ruling, Bobb said in an interview with KUOW’s Ross Reynolds on Thursday, he believed that his “job was done” as the monitor. “We’d brought the department to that point [of compliance].” But Bobb added that SPD’s protest response made it clear that “there needed to be a new monitor and new team to deal with new facts on the ground.” In that interview, Bobb did not mention that Robart ruled that the city had fallen partially out of compliance with the consent decree in May of last year because of accountability-related concerns.

Oftelie says that police accountability will be one of his priorities as monitor. In an email to the Seattle Times this week, Oftelie specifically said that his team’s focus will be on “SPD’s accountability and transparency structures”—the Office of Police Accountability (OPA), the Office of the Inspector General (OIG), and the CPC. But according to some local accountability experts, Oftelie’s proposal to reassess the city’s accountability structures will unnecessarily retrace the steps of longtime accountability advocates while real accountability reforms continue to languish. Continue reading “After Appointment of New SPD Monitor, Experts Reflect on the Past and Future of the Consent Decree”

Council Bans Use of “Less Lethal” Weapons and Chokeholds as Cop Funding Discussion Gets Underway

Police stand by during a recent encampment removal by the Navigation Team, which is made up mostly of Seattle police officers.

This story first appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

The Seattle City Council voted unanimously today to ban the Seattle Police Department from owning or using so-called “less lethal” weapons such as blast balls, tear gas, and pepper spray for any purpose, and, in separate legislation, to ban the use of “chokeholds,” a term that includes various methods of restraining a person by cutting off their air supply or blood flow to their brain.

City council member Lisa Herbold, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, had proposed delaying the legislation barring less-lethal weapons for one week at the request of the Office of Police Accountability and the Office of Inspector General, which asked the council for one week to review the legislation and make recommendations. The OPA and OIG, along with the Community Police Commission, are the three accountability groups charged with implementing and overseeing police reforms required by a 2012 federal consent decree.

Delaying a week would not have allowed police to resume the use of blast balls, tear gas, and other weapons against protesters, thanks to a federal court ruling from Friday, June 12, barring the use of force against peaceful protesters for two weeks. However, council member Kshama Sawant, who sponsored the legislation, said on Monday morning that she was “at a loss to understand how any council member can play a role in delaying the passage of what is absolutely bare minimum legislation.” 

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Sawant continued to inveigh against Herbold at the full council meeting at 2pm, calling an amendment that would allow police to use non-lethal weapons under circumstances unrelated to free speech or “crowd control,” such as subduing individual suspects, “nothing less than a racist amendment [and] a betrayal of the movement and the Black community.” Earlier, Sawant called the same amendment “horrific” and suggested that it would “create giant, truck-sized loopholes that will allow these weapons to be used in virtually any situation.”

Herbold’s amendment mirrored language adopted by the Community Police Commission in 2015 and in 2020 recommending a ban on these weapons specifically for crowd control purposes. The CPC, OIG, and OPA have not weighed in on whether less-lethal weapons should be banned outright, a move Herbold—a longtime advocate for police reform—said she worries could have unintended consequences.

Herbold didn’t directly address Sawant’s accusation, but did agree to withdraw the portion of her amendment to Sawant’s bill that would have allowed less-lethal weapons to be used for purposes other than crowd control. Her amendment, which ultimately passed, added language to Sawant’s bill asking the OPA, CPC, and OIG to “make a formal recommendation to the City Council on whether the Seattle Police Department should be reauthorized to use less-lethal weapons for crowd dispersal purposes” by August 15.

The council is sending the legislation to the Department of Justice, Federal District Court Judge James Robart, who presides over the consent decree, and court monitor Merrick Bobb, who was appointed to oversee the decree. The consent decree is an agreement, signed by the city in 2012, that committed the city to police reform after the federal court found a pattern of excessive force and racially biased policing. 

In early May, Mayor Jenny Durkan asked the judge to find the city in long-term compliance with federally mandated reforms, one of the final steps before the dissolution of federal oversight SPD. Less than three weeks later, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis and police in Seattle responded to mostly peaceful protests with violent force. 

The discussions about less-lethal weapons are just the first phase of discussions about the size and purpose of the police department, which will continue on Wednesday at 2pm with a discussion in the council’s budget committee about proposals to defund the department and invest in community organizations that provide alternative approaches to community safety and prosperity.

 

Another Day of Protests, Small Concessions from the City, and Calls for Systemic Change in Seattle

Community activist and former mayoral candidate Nikkita Oliver speaks at a rally in the Central District while two people film on their phones.

Protests against police brutality in Seattle have produced multiple lists of concrete demands from activists on the ground, the leader of the city’s civil rights department, and the three organizational pillars of the city’s police accountability structure. And while action from the city itself has been minimal—nightly curfews ended yesterday, police officers will display their badge number, and cops will stop using tear gas against protesters for 30 days—the protesters are far from done.

It’s hard to see the big picture while events are unfolding. We don’t have the benefit of hindsight or distance, and no one—even reporters with five streaming windows open on their laptops—can be everywhere at once. With that in mind, here are some snapshots of the last two days in Seattle.

• Mayor Jenny Durkan received significant credit for lifting a citywide curfew that was originally put in place at 5pm on May 30, but behind the scenes, the city council may have forced her hand. On Wednesday evening, the council was preparing a motion to lift the curfew on their own, and Durkan reportedly got wind of this information. Shortly after 7pm, Durkan lifted the curfew, saying that she made the decision after meeting with community leaders who told her they didn’t want anyone to be arrested for violating curfew. In fact, the community groups’ demands included the release of anyone arrested during the protests, including but not limited to anyone arrested for violating curfew.

The somewhat last-minute (or last-two-hours) decision to grant a minor concession to protesters was of a piece with Durkan and Chief Best’s announcement yesterday afternoon that they would change the policy on “mourning badges”—black bands that Seattle officers use to cover their badge numbers to mourn fallen officers, in this case a state trooper and Bainbridge Island police officer who died in March and April, respectively—so that the public could identify officers by their badge numbers, not just by their last name and first initial.

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The change to the mourning-band policy happened overnight, after both Best and Durkan said repeatedly that it could not “happen overnight.” Nonetheless, the change is a change in policy, not in legislation, so the council may choose to change the law itself to require that officers display both names and badge numbers, not just last names and first initials.

Durkan attempted to deflect criticism for the city’s motion to terminate a sustainment plan established as part of the federal consent decree, saying repeatedly that she did not support, and would not seek, the termination of the consent decree. However, the motion to terminate was a step toward just that. Yesterday, city attorney Pete Holmes withdrew the motion in response to police actions during the protests. Durkan has not spoken in detail about that decision, and her name was not on the announcement.

• The mayor made a small concession on the use of tear gas against demonstrators—she’s banning it for 30 days so that the Community Police Commission, Office of Police Accountability, and Office of Inspector General can review the use of tear gas and other chemical weapons, such as pepper spray, and make policy recommendations.

Those three groups, however, had already expressed their unanimous opinion that the city should stop using tear gas, full stop—asking the mayor and police chief Friday morning to “stop using CS gas, commonly known as tear gas” and calling it “a serious and indiscriminate use of force.” In a letter elaborating on their announcement, the three groups noted the adverse health impacts among people exposed to tear gas and to note that its use in warfare is banned by international convention.

A partial view of the crowd at Friday’s rally and march in the Central District. More photos available on Instagram @ericacbarnett.

 

The CPC asked the city to ban the use of blast balls, pepper spray, “and other projectiles” during demonstrations back in 2016. At a press conference on Friday, both Durkan and Best said that they were not aware of these recommendations, which were covered in the Seattle Times.

Later in the day, Office for Civil Rights director Mariko Lockhart—a Durkan appointee—sent an open letter to the city’s race and social justice “change teams” calling on the mayor to “immediately halt the use of militaristic law enforcement against demonstrators”; cut the police budget and “invest in community infrastructure within Black and Brown communities”; and stop sweeping homeless encampments and “shift funding away from the law enforcement component of the Navigation Team and invest more deeply in outreach, support services, and preventive strategies.

The leaders of the of the city’s Race and Social Justice Initiative Change Teams, as well as other groups representing Black and brown city of Seattle employees, are also drafting letters that will call for immediate changes to police use of force against demonstrators and significant longer-term changes to the way the city holds police accountable for violence against civilians.

• The mayor has often taken a defensive tone in responding to complaints about police brutality, the use of military-style weapons against large crowds of peaceful protesters, and requests for relatively minor policy changes like the use of mourning bands that cover badge numbers. For example, Durkan has emphasized the fact that the federal judge overseeing the consent decree “approved the crowd management plan” for back in 2017, “before I took office.”

Similarly, a letter from Durkan to city staff today recalled the mayor’s comments earlier that people “apparently” think that cops should display their badge numbers in addition to their last names and first initials. After centering her comments, as she has consistently, on large, systemic national issues (rather than the specific Seattle issues around which the protests have coalesced), Durkan wrote, “While Chief Best and I each have worked for decades for greater police accountability and a more just criminal justice system, we now hold positions where holding us accountable is also critical.” It’s the non-apology apology of conciliatory statements: We hear your concerns, but perhaps you didn’t realize that, actually, we’re on the same side.

• Late in the day, the leadership of the 43rd District Democrats created a petition calling on Durkan to resign, saying that she “has repeatedly used her powers to declare curfews that infringed on the First Amendment rights of protesters to peacefully assemble” and “failed to implement meaningful police reform to address police violence, specifically against Black and Brown communities (Durkan is up for reelection next year, assuming she decides to run). At this writing, it has more than 1,300 signatures.

Involuntary Treatment Bill, Modeled on California Law, to be Resurrected Next Session

Rep. Steve O’Ban, R-28

This story originally appeared in the South Seattle Emerald.

A state senate bill aimed at taking people with severe behavioral health issues off the street and putting them into involuntary treatment is off the table for this year, but its sponsor, Tacoma Republican Steve O’Ban (R-28) says he plans to resurrect it next session, because the problem of untreated mental illness and addiction isn’t going away.

“The reason for this bill is really the parents who have these kids … who devolve into a worse and worse condition and by the nature of their condition, they don’t think they need care,” O’Ban says. Under current law, people can only be detained and put under guardianship if a court determines that they’re incapacitated by a “mental disorder” and pose an imminent threat to themselves or others.

O’Ban’s proposal would allow judges in three counties—King, Pierce, and Snohomish—to appoint executors for people who have been involuntarily held for psychiatric evaluation five or more times in a 12-month period under the state Involuntary Treatment Act. That law allows people to be held in psychiatric hospitals (or emergency rooms if no psychiatric beds are available) for up to 180 days if a judge determines that they are incapacitated by mental illness. The proposed new involuntary guardianship, or “executorship,” would last one year unless the executor filed for an extension.

The program is modeled on a similar set of bills that passed in California in 2018 and 2019, which authorized three counties—San Francisco, San Diego, and Los Angeles—to create a new “conservatorship” program for people with both severe mental illness and addiction. California state senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco), who sponsored both bills, says his legislation is intended to address “a very small percentage of homeless people … who are severely debilitated and not capable of accepting voluntary services.”

“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services.” – State Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28)

Wiener says the new California laws create a “very narrow conservatorship to reach this small population so that we can save their lives. It is incredibly inhumane, and certainly not progressive, to allow people to die on the streets.” He estimates that the legislation would apply to as many as 100 people in San Francisco, but advocates who opposed the bill say the number is probably much smaller.

O’Ban’s bill, in contrast, would initially be limited to 10 people in each county.  Patients placed under executorship would cede most of their legal rights to a “court appointed resource officer,” or CARE officer, including the right to refuse treatment or choose their own medical providers, the right to decide where to live, and the right “to make decisions regarding social aspects of life,” according to a staff analysis of the legislation.

“One of the areas that’s been a particular concern is the lack of structure and necessary accountability for these patients who come out of involuntary treatment, or they’re in jail, where they should not be, and by the nature of their condition they don’t think they need care and they refuse the needed services,” O’Ban says.

At a hearing on the bill earlier this month, parents whose kids had died on the streets due to lack of housing and treatment testified that if the law had been in place when they were trying to get help for their children, they might still be alive today. Jerri Clark, the founder of Mothers of the Mentally Ill, told the committee that her son, who died last year at the age of 23, “cycled through hospitals that kept him just long enough that he wasn’t dangerous anymore” before releasing him.

“If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars.” – Jen Flory, Western Center on Law and Poverty

But critics of the legislation, including advocates for people with disabilities and people who have struggled with mental illness themselves, say that taking away people’s civil rights is inhumane and doesn’t solve the underlying issues: An acute lack of funding for treatment, housing, and intensive case management.

“We do have concerns that adding another layer of legal process to compel people into care, rather than adding new treatment or housing resources, will mainly restrict civil liberties while not actually getting to the desired outcomes,” the Department of Community and Health Services said in a statement about the bill. “Instead of adding another layer of court involvement, we think a middle of the road approach – focusing on expanding flexible, community-based intensive services and added supportive housing resources – will more effectively meet the needs of this population.”

Laura Van Tosh, a behavioral health care advocate who testified against the bill, says the fact that people are involuntarily committed again and again “points to a problem that has nothing to do with people’s mental health. How can people be committed that many times in one year and nobody has ever talked about why the system didn’t work well enough the first time?” She says the current involuntary commitment system “is like going to a restaurant and getting E. coli over and over again, and never figuring out that you should go to a different restaurant.”

California’s conservatorship law requires treatment and housing to be available before people can be placed under conservatorship, although opponents say cities may meet this requirement by simply putting people in the new program at the front of the line for scarce treatment and services. “San Francisco will not conserve people unless they have somewhere to place them,” Wiener says. “In San Francisco, we’re expanding our mental health bed capacity and our shelter bed capacity, we’re building more supportive housing, but it’s definitely a challenge.”

Similarly, O’Ban’s bill says that a county could only implement the program if there are sufficient resources, including mental health treatment and housing, to serve potential clients. The loopholes will likely be the same, if a version of O’Ban’s bill passes in the future, as those in places like San Francisco. There are always beds in Seattle for some people—the question is who gets priority.

Jen Flory, a policy analyst at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, says that by putting people in involuntary treatment and stripping them of their rights, “we’re kind of skipping from A to Z. If you look at the big picture, we’ve completely divested from mental health care and we’ve put people out on the streets where they’re completely disintegrating… and then the only care that they’re getting is in the back of police cars being brought to psych emergency [wards]. And at the end of this journey, they’re like, ‘Okay, there’s something wrong with you and we need to force this care on you.’”

David Lord, the public policy director for Disability Rights Washington, says that before the state authorizes counties to appoint guardians for people struggling with mental illness and addiction, they should actually fund the services O’Ban’s bill enumerates, which include supportive community housing, outpatient counseling and treatment, peer support services, and substance use treatment.

“If you provide services, make them available, and do it in a way that is attractive to people, they’re much more likely to accept those services than if you try to force them,” Lord says.

Neither California’s law, nor O’Ban’s proposal, specifically focuses on people experiencing homelessness. But the subtext of both bills is that they will help put people exhibiting visible symptoms of severe mental illness and addiction—shouting, acting out, and behaving in ways that make other people uncomfortable—out of sight.

In our conversation, O’Ban referred to the 100 “prolific offenders” identified in a report by former Seattle City Attorney candidate Scott Lindsay as a group that might be eligible for executorships under his proposal. And he acknowledged that while his bill is “not exclusively for those who are homeless, I think many of the people who are eligible would be” homeless.

“I can tell you that there are familiar faces, frequent flyers, people who are well-known to the law enforcement community and in emergency rooms,” O’Ban says. “If you start focusing on that population, by identifying the top 100 who are heavily utilizing all those …. you would save the system literally hundreds of thousands of dollars a year.” And “clean up” downtown streets in the process.

A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More

Acting HSD director Jason Johnson and mayoral advisor on homelessness Tess Colby

1. City council member Lisa Herbold struggled Wednesday to get Human Services Department Director Jason Johnson to answer her question about future layoffs from HSD’s Homeless Strategy and Investment (HSI) division, which is merging with King County’s homelessness division as part of the creation of a new regional homelessness authority. At a meeting of the council’s special committee on homelessness, Herbold asked Johnson repeatedly how many HSI employees would be moving to new offices in the county-owned Yesler Building as part of a temporary “co-location” of city and county staff, and how many are expected to have jobs with the new authority. “I’m hearing a lot of speculation about which positions are going to be eliminated,” Herbold said. “Given that the entire HSI division is being relocated [in March and we aren’t making final decisions about who will stay at the regional authority until much later, is there something happening that we should be aware of?”

Johnson responded first by describing the history that led to the current organizational structure of HSI, then talked at length about the successive organizational structures that will be put in place over the next year. “What is going to occur is colocation in March 2020, then after the hiring of the CEO, we will begin what is termed a loan period where day to day decisions are made by the CEO, but there will also be existing lines of authority back to the city and the county…”

“I’m frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”—Council member Lisa Herbold

His explanation—which did not include an answer to Herbold’s question about layoffs—went on for so long that council member Kshama Sawant jumped in to say that she hoped the council could wrap up talking about the regional authority quickly so that the committee could move on to “the most substantive issue” on the agenda, her proposal to vastly expand tiny house villages in the city, since she had somewhere else to be. (Council member Debora Juarez said that while she appreciated Sawant’s desire to move on to her own item, “I want to point out that we spent 90 minutes on a resolution that we didn’t even pass”—Sawant’s resolution condemning India’s National Register of Citizens and Citizenship Amendment Act—and “I, for one, want to hear how this is going to get implemented.”)

After the meeting, Herbold told me that she never did get answer to her question: “If the entirety of HSI staff are colocating and layoff decisions aren’t being made final until either a 2020 supplemental or 2021 proposed budget, when exactly between those two points in time will HSI staff learn their jobs are proposed to be eliminated?” Herbold says she was “frustrated that Interim Director Johnson seemed to filibuster in a way that made it very difficult for me to ask my specific question and he definitely didn’t answer it.”

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2. Juarez was hardly the only council member casting shade on Sawant’s nonbinding resolution on India, which—along with a resolution opposing war in Iran—took up most of the council’s two-hour-plus regular meeting on Monday. Freshman council member Alex Pedersen said he would propose a resolution condemning all forms of oppression everywhere, just to cover all possible bases. “There’s many disturbing issues going on today for which we do not have resolutions, and my resolution is broad enough to capture instances of oppression that we might be missing,” Pedersen said. “Allow me to ask that we try to not craft a city council council resolution for every horrible thing that our president or any world leader does.”

Pedersen’s resolution, if it ever does see the light of day, is unlikely to find traction among his colleagues, who seemed to consider it a stunt designed to embarrass Sawant. Sawant, for her part, immediately used the proposal as an opportunity to drag her colleagues for lacking the “moral and political courage” to address housing and homelessness. “Passing resolutions is not the barrier. The barrier is lack of courage,” she said.

3. Tomorrow afternoon, Beyonce St. James—the formerly homeless drag artist who spoke and performed at All Home King County’s annual conference last year—will appear in court to seek an injunction against the release of public records that include her legal name and other identifying information. I received a notice of the hearing because I requested St. James’ invoice for the event, for which she charged $500. (Attendees reported that they were told St. James was volunteering her time and performing for tips; video of the event shows attendees tossing and handing her cash.) St. James (not her legal name) is asking that all her personal information be kept private because she has already been threatened and harassed over her performance and fears further harassment if her address and other details are made public.

Continue reading “A “Filibuster” on City Layoffs, a Resolution on Resolutions, an Accusatory Letter, and More”

New Plan for Dealing With “Prolific Offenders” Substitutes Punishment for Harm Reduction, Advocates Say

Advocates for harm reduction took strong exception to a set of recommendations from a joint city-county “High Barrier Individuals Working Group”, arguing that several of the proposals are just extensions of the existing, punishment-based criminal justice system rather than the kind of programs that make meaningful, lasting change in the lives of people suffering from severe addiction and mental illness.

The four-pronged plan, which Mayor Jenny Durkan, King County Executive Dow Constantine, City Attorney Pete Holmes, and King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg announced last week, came out of the recommendations of a work group assembled to respond to former city attorney candidate Scott Lindsay’s controversial “System Failure” report last year. That report looked at the records of 100 people with long lists of misdemeanor charges and determined that many of them had failed to comply with conditions imposed by the court, such as mandatory abstinence-based treatment, random drug and alcohol tests, and appearing regularly in court.

“We have too many people who’ve been cycling through the criminal justice system and we have not been able to design the right interventions for that,” Durkan said in announcing the proposals last week. “We had some of the highest-cost interventions that were also the least effective. We knew we needed to come together and bring people across jurisdictions to address this issue.” Satterberg described the proposal’s goals more bluntly: City and county officials needed a way “to manage what we see as obvious social disorder.”

The four pillars of the plan, which would be partly funded through Durkan’s upcoming budget proposal, are:

Expanded probation. This would include a new “high-barrier caseload” model, in which probation officers (described in the recommendations as “probation counselors”) would meet with parolees outside the probation office and parolees would be required to show up in court more frequently; and a “high-barrier treatment” model, in which offenders would get reduced sentences in exchange for going to inpatient addiction treatment.

According to Durkan, “probation counselors” with “special training in harm reduction…will meet with individuals where they are in the field, have more frequent review hearings with judges, and give people that chance to spend less time in jail only if they agree to certain dependency treatment.”

Harm reduction advocates say adding more obstacles, such as additional mandatory court dates and coercive treatment,  represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, which relies on non-coercive tactics to help people achieve better health, fewer arrests, and a better quality of life. This, in turn, reduces the harm they cause the community. They also argue that sending probation officers out into the field to track down clients and provide “counseling” will cause confusion and could lead to greater harm to people on probation, because probation officers (unlike real counselors) are obligated to tell the judge if a client is violating the terms of their probation.

“It would be incongruous and disingenuous to train probation officers in harm reduction counseling if the judges—to whom the probation officers report—were to use coercion to force people into mandated and abstinence-based treatment and require abstinence in return for reduced sentencing.”

“I’ve found in my clinical practice that clients start to get confused when parole officers start calling themselves ‘probation counselors’ because they start to think, ‘I can tell this person anything, and, I can tell them how I’m really doing,’ but [the probation officers] are still in this adversarial role,” says Susan Collins, co-director of the Harm Reduction Research and Treatment (HaRRT) Center at the University of Washington. For example, if someone on probation told their “probation counselor” that he was struggling to abstain from drugs and alcohol, the officer would have to report that to a judge as a probation violation, which could land the parolee back in jail.

Mandatory treatment is also contrary to harm reduction, because it makes sobriety, rather than improved outcomes, the goal. “Harm reduction doesn’t have to be at odds with serving protecting public safety. In fact, these goals would seem to be very compatible if we weren’t so fixated on abstinence achievement as a proxy for not committing crimes.” Moreover, it isn’t very effective, especially for people with severe drug and alcohol use disorders who are also facing other major challenges such as a criminal record and homelessness.

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The “success” rate of short-term inpatient treatment, which is what the report recommends for parolees struggling with substance use disorders, is abysmally low already (about 9 out of 10 people with alcohol disorders who enter inpatient treatment, for example, relapse in the first four years), and the “success” rate for people with no support system or place to live when they get out is likely even lower. Although the work group’s report quotes an NIH pamphlet saying that “treatment does not have to be voluntary to be effective,” that pamphlet does not include links to actual research, which shows that although forced treatment can work, it usually doesn’t. The most recent research on the kind of severely addicted, chronically homeless people the probation proposal is supposed to address, Collins points out, actually showed that mandatory 28-day inpatient treatment was the least effective form of treatment.

“In addition to the nonexistent research foundation for coerced or mandated abstinence-based treatment for this population, the proposed approach is troubling philosophically,” Collins says. “It would be incongruous and disingenuous to train probation officers in harm reduction counseling if the judges—to whom the probation officers report—were to use coercion to force people into mandated and abstinence-based treatment and require abstinence in return for reduced sentencing. This is like a bait-and-switch for some of the most vulnerable folks in our community.”

Harm reduction advocates say adding more obstacles, such as additional mandatory court dates and coercive treatment,  represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept, which relies on non-coercive tactics to help people achieve better health, fewer arrests, and a better quality of life.

Holmes, speaking last week, said expanded probation, with enforcement mechanisms like “random UAs [drug tests]” and consequences for noncompliance, would be complementary to LEAD’s “softer touch.” “We’re talking about a challenging population that does need the specter of a court intervention or revocation hearing [that] can follow when someone doesn’t comply with the terms of their probation. … We do have to [consider] public safety first, and a probation officer is going to be able to bring noncompliance to our attention so that probation can be revoked and sentencing reimposed as necessary.”

Collins, with the HaRRT Center, says “harm reduction”—like the Downtown Emergency Service Center’s successful program for people with alcohol use disorders at 1811 Eastlake— “doesn’t have to be at odds with serving protecting public safety. In fact, these goals would seem to be very compatible if we weren’t so fixated on abstinence achievement as a proxy for not committing crimes.”

The expansion of a recently opened shelter in the decommissioned west wing of the King County jail by 60 beds, which Durkan suggested could be reserved for “high-barrier offenders.” Durkan claimed last week that the shelter would be a “comprehensive place-based treatment center” with “on-site treatment for mental health and substance abuse disorders… something that doesn’t exist” yet in the city.

This statement—repeated by the Seattle Times, which described the shelter as a “60-bed treatment center”—is inaccurate.

“It’s going to be a shelter,” says DESC director Daniel Malone. “So, just to be really clear—it’s not going to be licensed as a treatment facility, but we will bring behavioral health treatment resources there. … What we do in a lot of our locations is have a regular, often scheduled, presence of different kinds of behavioral health specialists there to engage with people, form relationships, and help them access services.” (City officials were apparently asked to stop referring to the shelter as a treatment center prior to Durkan’s remarks last week.) Continue reading “New Plan for Dealing With “Prolific Offenders” Substitutes Punishment for Harm Reduction, Advocates Say”