Category: criminal justice

Seattle Court Agrees to Exclude City Attorney’s List of “High Utilizers” from Community Court

By Erica C. Barnett

The Seattle Municipal Court voted Friday to exclude so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—those who have been accused of misdemeanors more than 12 times in the past five years, and at least once in the past eight months—from community court, a therapeutic court established in 2020 for people accused of certain low-level crimes.

PubliCola reported the news exclusively on Twitter Monday morning.

Davison asked the court to intervene on her behalf in late April, after community court judge Damon Shadid (one of seven municipal court judges, and the only one who handles community court cases) declined her request to immediately bar “high utilizers” from community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors (a category that excludes more serious crimes like assaults, domestic violence, and DUI) are automatically eligible for community court, which gives defendants access to services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. People can only go through community court four times; after that, they have to go through mainstream court, which frequently convicts defendants but does not jail them beyond the time they have already served.

The King County Department of Public Defese analyzed the “high utilizers” list and found that most were homeless or had undergone competency evaluations, an indication of behavioral health disorders.


In meetings between the court and Davison’s office, Shadid had proposed putting off a decision about “high utilizers” until July to allow parties to court deliberations, including the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), to come up with a plan for this group that went beyond jail and traditional prosecution. 

In a statement, Davison said she was pleased that the court agreed to her request. “Individuals causing the most impact on our community need meaningful accountability for their criminal activity paired with increased behavioral health services,” she said. “The best venue to ensure appropriate accountability and community safety is in Seattle Municipal Court and my team will continue to engage service providers to address underlying behavioral health needs. Addressing the impacts of individuals engaged in frequent, repeat criminal activity is one of the best ways to improve public safety.”

Davison has not proposed any additional spending on behavioral health care, which is mostly funded by the county, not the city. An analysis of Davison’s “high utilizer” list by DPD showed that the list consists primarily of people who are unsheltered or have been through a court-order evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial, a sign of extreme behavioral health issues that are most effectively addressed with health care and treatment, not jail.

DPD director Anita Khandelwal said community court came out of a collaboration between the municipal court, the previous city attorney, and her department, with the goal of charting “a new path for people accused of misdemeanors in Seattle that would reduce the harm of the criminal legal system and quickly address the needs of vulnerable members of our community. While the court continues, we’re sorry to see this collaboration unravel so quickly at the behest of the City Attorney.”

Traditional prosecution and jail, Khandelwal continued, “takes far more time, is very expensive, and fails to produce meaningful results. The City Attorney has produced no data—and I have seen none—that shows that the traditional criminal legal system is effective in changing behavior. Instead, it means people who have significant unmet needs will continue to cycle through a system that we know to be expensive, ineffective, and racially disproportionate.”

In a statement, the municipal court judges said they agreed to the changes Davison requested “in an effort to work collaboratively” with her office and “in the interest of preserving Community Court as an option to address many non-violent misdemeanor cases.” Later, the court amended the judges’ statement (which we quoted on Twitter) to read, “The Community Court agreement already provided the judges with discretion to screen defendants out of Community Court. The changes approved last week will allow the City Attorney to decline to refer a case to Community Court even if it is technically eligible.”

As a partner in community court, Davison has the ability to withdraw the city from the court, effectively shutting it down. This gives her office considerable leverage in negotiations over court rules, including which defendants are eligible.

Community court, the judges noted in their statement, was established as a corrective to a system in which people are already being released onto the street (instead of jailed) and are often hard to track down for court appearances specifically because of “housing insecurity, mental health issues, and substance abuse issues; all issues that Community Court was meant to address.”

Conservative Group With Ties to Assistant City Attorney Launches Pro-Davison Effort; Mayor’s Office Said He Didn’t OK Police Hiring Bill, Contradicting Council Member

1. Change Washington, a “strategic communications organization” launched by a right-wing nonprofit called Project 42 in 2019, has repeatedly provided a platform for the tough-on-crime views of now-assistant city attorney Scott Lindsay (including this evocatively titled promotional piece, “Ann Davison’s Plan to Eliminate Repeat Offenders“). On Wednesday, it issued an explicit call to action on Davison’s (and Lindsay’s) behalf.

“Ann Davison Needs Your Help!” screams the headline above an blog post imploring readers to contact Davison and King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal to support banning so-called “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system from Seattle Community Court. The link for Davison is her generic city email address; the link for Khandelwal goes to a listing for her direct phone line, effectively encouraging Davison’s supporters to harass a county employee with no control over Seattle’s community court.

“[T]he Seattle Community Court has already failed regarding these criminals, because if the program was working as intended those serial offenders wouldn’t exist, and Davison’s initiative wouldn’t be necessary,” the blog post says. (All bolds in original).

This isn’t the first time Change Washington has encouraged people to flood officials’ emails and phone lines to support an agenda directly promoted by Deputy City Attorney Lindsay. Dann Mead Smith, who heads up Project 42, credited a post Lindsay wrote on Change Washington’s website with “stopping the proposal to do away with misdemeanor crimes in Seattle by activating its list of 35,000 subscribers and flooding the council with emails and comments.”

As we reported last week, Davison’s office sent a letter to all seven Seattle Municipal Court judges asking them to overrule the community court judge, Damon Shadid, who has been negotiating with Davison’s office over her demand to exclude people from community court who meet her “high utilizers” criteria. Community court is the municipal court’s therapeutic, less-punitive option for people accused of certain low-level, nonviolent misdemeanors.

Davison’s high-utilizers list (like similar lists Lindsay has made over the years, including the “high impact offenders” list that was the basis of KOMO News’ “Seattle Is Dying” video) is made up largely of people who are homeless and those who’ve been through court-ordered evaluations to determine their competency to stand trial. Or, as Change Washington puts it, people who are “not interested in living honest lives like the rest of us even when offered a helping hand to accomplish it.”

Change Washington headlines and stories about Ann Davison and her agenda

This isn’t the first time Change Washington has encouraged people to flood public officials’ emails and phone lines to support an agenda directly promoted by Lindsay. Dann Mead Smith, the former head of the libertarian Washington Policy Center who now heads up Project 42, credited a post Lindsay wrote on Change Washington’s website with “stopping the proposal to do away with misdemeanor crimes in Seattle by activating its list of 35,000 subscribers and flooding the council with emails and comments.” (That proposal would have allowed defendants to say they committed a crime, such as shoplifting, to meet a basic human need as part of their defense; it would not have “legalized” any crimes.) Project 42’s latest corporate filing indicates the group had revenues of more than $500,000 last year.

Change Washington’s post on community court lists all seven municipal court judges’ names along with a warning: “We won’t forget their names when they’re up for reelection. The time of judges flying under the radar with regards to criminal coddling and degrading the City’s public safety is coming to an end.”

It’s possible that conservative groups will recruit challengers for municipal court judges—the entire court is up for reelection, and has a history of liberal-conservative swings—but historically, most Seattle Municipal Court elections go uncontested and largely unnoticed amid higher-profile campaigns in Congressional election years.

2. Earlier this week, Seattle City Councilmember Sara Nelson said both Mayor Bruce Harrell and Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell had given her the “thumbs up” to propose a bill that would lift restrictions on $4.5 million of the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 budget, allowing SPD to spend the full amount, or any portion of it, on financial incentives to recruit new officers. Because we hadn’t heard anything about either Harrell explicitly supporting Nelson’s contentious proposal, we reached out to the mayor’s office to hear their version of the story.

According to a Harrell spokesman, Jamie Housen, both Harrells’ conversations with Nelson about hiring incentives took place “before this ordinance was even contemplated. Councilmember Nelson informed the mayor of her plan to sponsor a resolution in support of staffing bonuses, generally. The mayor let her know she was welcome to put it forward and that doing so would not create an issue with the Mayor’s Office,” Housen said.

“Similarly, when Councilmember Nelson asked to discuss police recruiting with Senior Deputy Mayor Harrell, the Senior Deputy Mayor encouraged her to explore potential solutions to SPD staffing challenges from the legislative level, which might include incentive pay or relocation costs as potential options.”

Herbold, who chairs the public safety committee, has proposed releasing $650,000 of the restricted money to pay for relocation expenses for officers moving to Seattle from out of town and to hire a professional recruiter for SPD.

City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court

City Attorney Ann DavisonBy Erica C. Barnett

City Attorney Ann Davison sent a letter to the entire Seattle Municipal Court on Wednesday asking the court to give her the ability to deny “high utilizers” of the criminal justice system—a group of about 120 people who have had 12 or more referrals from the Seattle Police Department to the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) in the past five years—access to community court, a therapeutic court in which defendants define their own goals, such as reduction of substance use, and participate in mandatory community service. The change would effectively make prior criminal history a factor in determining someone’s eligibility for community court.

Currently, people whose charges consist entirely of low-level misdemeanors are automatically eligible for community court, which allows defendants to access services without requiring them to plead guilty to a crime. Crimes like theft, pedestrian interference, and resisting arrest are eligible offenses; more serious misdemeanor offenses like reckless driving, harassment, and DUI are not.

For weeks, Davison’s office has been negotiating with Municipal Court Judge Judge Damon Shadid, who presides over community court, over how to treat this group of defendants. As of Wednesday, according to Davison’s letter, those discussions “have come to an impasse.” In her letter, Davison asks the judges to overrule Shadid and allow the city attorney to deny access to community court for people the city attorney categorizes as high utilizers, and to “clarify how many chances individuals get to have their cases referred to Community Court.” Currently, defendants can go through community court a maximum of four times.

In a statement responding to Davison’s letter on Thursday, the municipal court said community court was ”

founded to address the root causes behind low-level criminal activity while reducing the harm of pretrial incarceration” and “designed with the Washington State Pretrial Reform Task Force Final Recommendations report and The Vera Institute of Justice’s 2020 report front and center.” (Links in original.) The court said it was still evaluating Davison’s proposal and “will continue to work with her office and the Department of Public Defense to identify how to move forward together and create a prioritized plan for people whose needs and issues are not being addressed, and have not been addressed historically, by our criminal justice system.”

“The letter mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings (and I have been in attendance at these meetings). The letter causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”—King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal

Davison released her letter in a press release at 8:00 Wednesday night after PubliCola obtained a copy and sent her office a list of questions about it Wednesday afternoon.

“Unfortunately, in the Community Court Steering Committee meeting last Friday, Judge Shadid insisted that he would not agree to exclude those meeting the High Utilizer criteria from Community Court and would potentially refuse to oversee Community Court if his fellow judges agreed to the changes that I have requested,” Davison’s letter to the Municipal Court judges said. “At this juncture, I am formally requesting that the full Seattle Municipal Court consider this important modification of the 2019 Community Court agreement.”

That agreement, signed by then-city attorney Pete Holmes, lays out a process for the city attorney’s office to refer defendants to community court and describes the court’s less punitive approach to misdemeanor crime. “Simply stated, this version of Community Court (with its ‘release-first model,’ voluntary referrals to services, and limited accountability mechanisms) is the wrong place for those committing repeat, high-impact criminal activity,” Davison’s letter says.

King County Department of Public Defense (DPD) director Anita Khandelwal says Davison’s letter “mischaracterizes Judge Shadid’s statements in the meetings,” which Khandelwal has attended, and “causes me concern about the possibility for good faith negotiations with the City Attorney’s Office given the inaccuracies in their statements.”

Judge Shadid, Khandelwal said, did not “insist on anything,” as Davison’s letter claims. Instead, she said, he suggested postponing any major changes to community court until July, to “allow for us to work collaboratively to develop a plan for people on the list, because the only plan that the City Attorney’s Office seemed to be putting forward involved incarceration (including overriding jail booking criteria) and traditional prosecution.”

Importantly, the 2019 agreement removed a requirement that defendants plead guilty before getting access to community court—a requirement for other alternatives to the mainstream court system, such as King County Drug Court. According to the community court rules and procedures, “An individual should not have to choose between their Constitutional rights to a trial and having the ability to access services that will help them exit the criminal justice system. Therefore, a person doesn’t have to give up trial rights to participate and gain benefits from Seattle Community Court.”

Khandelwal says community court is designed to avoid the harmful outcomes that are common in the mainstream court system, which often leads to a cycle of incarceration and disproportionately impacts people of color, unsheltered people, and people with a history of being declared incompetent to stand trial because of mental illness.

In fact, a DPD analysis found that the people on Davison’s “high utilizer” list are overwhelmingly people who fit into one or more of those three categories. Nearly six in ten have “indications of housing instability,” such as giving 77 South Washington—the Compass Center shelter in Pioneer Square—as their address. More than half (51 percent) have been through a court-ordered evaluation to determine their competency to stand trial. And 40 percent were Black, Indigenous, or People of Color (BIPOC), higher than the proportion of BIPOC Seattle residents.

“Prior criminal legal system involvement is often a result of racially biased policing, which is only perpetuated or deepened by prosecution,” Khandelwal said. “DPD worked hard with the court and CAO to develop a court that did not look at criminal history to avoid perpetuating that bias.”

“Our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.”—City Attorney’s Office spokesman

According to a spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, the 2019 agreement “removes [the city attorney’s] prosecutorial discretion to consider prior criminal history. Because community court is a release-first model, individuals with a history of repeat criminal activity are able to immediately return to their criminal behavior without consequence. Ultimately, as this agreement is written, we have no discretion to screen out any candidates that fit the high utilizer criteria without being in violation” of the agreement.

“Without modification to this agreement, many individuals meeting the high utilizer criteria are required to be repeatedly routed through Community Court despite little to no change in their criminal activity,” Derrick said. In general, he added, “our office does not believe that individuals meeting the High Utilizer criteria are a good fit for Community Court, where the main obligations are completing a life skills class or meeting with service providers.” Continue reading “City Attorney Davison Asks Court to Let Her Deny “High Utilizers” Access to Community Court”

Male Advisor Scott Lindsay Wrote City Attorney’s “Glass Ceiling” Email Calling Council Sexist; Bus Safety Audit Finds Most Incidents Aren’t Investigated

1. An email signed by then city attorney-elect Ann Davison calling the Seattle City Council sexist for proposing new reporting requirements for the City Attorney’s Office was originally written not by city attorney Ann Davison but by her male deputy, Scott Lindsay, emails obtained through a records request show.

Davison’s office sent the email to council members and the press in response to a council bill that would have required the office to inform the council before making any changes to, or eliminating, diversion programs that allow people accused of misdemeanors to avoid criminal charges, and provide quarterly reports to the council about the effectiveness of diversion programs.

“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. The hearing on the bill is at 9:30am,” the email from Lindsay to Davison explains. “The concept in this email (I was planning a letter but now think email is better) is to roll up your key messages (collaboration and listening, centering victim voices, transparency and problem-solving) into one strong intro piece that also highlights your focus on real public safety problems … I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”

“I have drafted an email for you to send to City Council with the idea that you would send it this morning by 8:30am before you head downtown. I think this piece is strong and unique enough that it will certainly be noticed around City Hall and may help stir media interest in your transition.”—Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay, in an email to City Attorney Ann Davison

The email explicitly accused the council (which is made up of six women and three men) of targeting Davison because she is a woman. After describing the “unique barriers to women in the legal profession,” the email suggests the council was applying a “double standard”  based on Davison’s sex—one that sent a troubling message to “our daughters who may one day seek elected office.” (The line about daughters was not in Lindsay’s original email.)

“In the over 100-year history of the City Attorney’s Office, none of my male predecessors faced a single preemptive move by Council to establish additional reporting requirements and restrictions on operations in the two months before they took office. Nor did Council show any interest in scrutinizing the limited data provided by my predecessor,” Pete Holmes, the email says.

City council public safety committee chair Lisa Herbold responded earnestly to the email, noting that the council passed similar reporting requirements while Davison’s predecessor, Pete Holmes, was in office. “I’m sorry that the reporting bill has been received in this spirit. I do not believe it was the sponsors’ intent, nor was it mine in voting in favor of the bill,” Herbold wrote.

The council ultimately passed the bill, but changed the language; instead of requiring Davison’s office to let the council know before making changes to existing diversion programs, it requires the city attorney’s office to inform the council within 90 days after the changes are made. The legislation also required the office to report back once a quarter on changes to pre-booking diversion programs.

2. An audit of accidents and other safety incidents at King County Metro found that the agency fails to investigate the vast majority of incidents, leading to data gaps and negatively impacting the transit agency’s ability to train drivers and prevent dangerous incidents in the future.

“Metro Transit dedicates most of its analysis to incidents where there was damage or injuries reported and that the operator may have been able to prevent,” the audit found. “Once an incident is determined to be non-preventable or less severe, Metro Transit does not take additional steps to analyze or respond to its context or causes.” Continue reading “Male Advisor Scott Lindsay Wrote City Attorney’s “Glass Ceiling” Email Calling Council Sexist; Bus Safety Audit Finds Most Incidents Aren’t Investigated”

City Attorney Davison’s Plan to Clear Case Backlog Includes Dismissing Nearly 2,000 Low-Level Misdemeanors

City Attorney Ann DavisonBy Erica C. Barnett

City Attorney Ann Davison’s office announced Davison will decline to prosecute nearly 2,000 misdemeanor cases referred by the Seattle Police Department as part of an effort to eliminate what she has described as a 5,000-case backlog left over by her predecessor, Pete Holmes. “In order to maintain close-in-time filing for present day cases, some cases from the backlog will be declined, including those involving: Property Destruction, Theft, Criminal Trespass, and Non-DUI Traffic,” the announcement from Davison’s office says.

A spokesman for Davison, Anthony Derrick, said the cases are, on average, 334 days old, “making them very difficult—and in some cases impossible—to prosecute.”

The city attorney’s office will prioritize the remaining cases according to the severity of the charges: “Crimes against persons” such as domestic violence and sexual assault, followed by misdemeanors involving firearms, DUIs, people who meet the criteria of the office’s “high utilizer initiative,” which identified 118 people with 12 or more misdemeanor referrals, and anyone with three or more cases in the backlog. The city has repeatedly announced initiatives to target so-called “prolific offenders” for enhanced prosecution, raising concerns from public defenders who argue that punitive approaches do not lead to rehabilitation or long-term public safety.

Earlier this year, Davison announced she would speed up filing decisions on misdemeanor cases, saying that “the best way to interrupt crime happening on the streets today is by quickly and efficiently moving on the cases referred to us by the Seattle Police Department.” On the campaign trail in 2020, Davison vowed to aggressively prosecute misdemeanors, accusing her opponent, Nicole Thomas-Kennedy, of wanting to legalize crime. On her campaign website, Davison said Thomas-Kennedy believed that “if we stop prosecuting misdemeanor crimes … such an approach would magically make crime disappear.”

Davison’s criminal division director, Natalie Walton-Anderson, struck a markedly different tone in her statement about the decision to decline almost half the cases that make up the backlog. “Simply filing every case would not resolve the backlog,” she said. “[T]he court system cannot handle an influx of cases of this magnitude all at once.”

Derrick, Davison’s spokesman, said the office doesn’t “anticipate that another mass decline will be necessary to clear the backlog by the end of the year”; he added that the decision to decline low-level misdemeanor cases only applies to the backlog, not future cases.

According to today’s announcement, the criminal division of Davison’s office is now “fully staffed.” However, the office plans to ask the city council for extra mid-year funding to hire more staff to address the backlog. The office is scheduled to present their approach to addressing the backlog to the council’s public safety committee next Tuesday.

A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear

The Seattle Police Department’s Mobile Precinct on Third Avenue in downtown Seattle.

By Paul Kiefer

A month has passed since the Seattle Police Department moved its mobile precinct to the intersection of Third Ave. and Pine St. in downtown Seattle, scattering an open-air market for drugs and stolen merchandise that had recently been the scene of two murders.

SPD has maintained a presence at the intersection since then as part of a push to crack down on crime downtown called Operation New Day, mostly making arrests for shoplifting and other misdemeanor crimes. Unlike a similar crackdown in the Little Saigon neighborhood in February, there have been few felony arrests in the long-troubled area. Meanwhile, the social services that Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell said would follow the sweep at Third and Pine are still on hold.

Senior Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell says that the relative scarcity of felony arrests doesn’t tell the full story. “Felonies take a while—you’ve got to build those cases,” she said. Unlike at 12th Ave. and S. Jackson St. in Little Saigon, where federal law enforcement began investigating a similar illicit market and a pattern of EBT fraud long before SPD cleared the intersection, Harrell said the sweep of Third and Pine was a direct response to the shootings on February 27 and March 2 that killed 52-year-old Reno Maiava and 15-year-old Michael Del Bianco, respectively. SPD later arrested suspects in both shootings, though neither arrest took place on Third; officers tracked Maiava’s killer to a Tukwila motel, while Del Bianco’s killer turned himself in at SPD’s West Precinct.

Deputy Mayor Monisha Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said.

Harrell added that while SPD is still working with federal partners to make drug arrests in the area, the investigations require patience. “We’re not trying to get the low-level dealers,” she said. “We’re trying to get the folks who are a little further up the food chain, and you can’t put that on a calendar.”

Judges have already released many of the people arrested at both Third and Pine and 12th and Jackson; one man released by a King County Superior Court judge after his arrest in Little Saigon reappeared along Third, where SPD officers arrested him again for drug possession and carrying a gun illegally. According to Harrell, the repeat arrests have frustrated some prosecutors. “What I’m hearing from prosecutors is that they’re making their best cases and their strongest recommendations” to judges, she said, “and sometimes they’re feeling unheard.”

According to US Attorney Nick Brown, finding a “high-level” drug dealer at an intersection like Third and Pine—or at any of the encampments in greater downtown that SPD has swept in the past two months—is unlikely. Most of the dealers whose crimes could rise to the federal level, he says, “are, in fact, not Washingtonians. … Most of the people we identify as significant in those cases are not even in Seattle; many are in Mexico or California. Those that are here only come for a short period of time.” Brown’s office has the discretion to decide which cases rise to the federal level; the King County Prosecutor’s Office handles the vast majority of felony cases. So far, Brown’s office has taken four cases from the crackdowns in Little Saigon and along Third Ave.

In the view of some skeptics of the operation, most of the behavior drawing negative attention at Third and Pine doesn’t rise to the felony level. “Most of what people complain about aren’t felonies,” said Kevin Toth, a social worker with the King County Department of Public Defense. “Drug dealing, sure. Robberies, shootings, also, yes. But most of the atmosphere down there is the result of lawful behaviors or misdemeanors at worst.”

Meanwhile, the operation at Third and Pine has re-opened the direct line between police officers and the Public Defender Association-run program LEAD, the city’s primary diversion option for people who commit crimes related to behavioral health issues or extreme poverty. LEAD’s early model relied on referrals from arresting officers—so-called “arrest diversions”—but in the past two years, the program shifted focus, relying instead on community groups, business organizations, outreach workers and prosecutors to refer clients for diversion. Community referrals don’t create an arrest record—one reason the program began shifting away from arrest diversions to begin with.

However, according to LEAD project director Tara Moss, that trend is reversing. “We’re now seeing the current mayor’s office and SPD leadership break the logjam and start sending LEAD referrals again” after a two-year pause on arrest referrals, she said. In 2021, LEAD received one arrest diversions; this year, the program has received eight arrest diversions. Moss also noted that while the program currently has some “capacity issues” as a result of a new wave of referrals, she anticipates that LEAD will be able to take on more clients later this year.

Since officers haven’t done arrest diversions in years, Harrell said, SPD is currently retraining officers on how to engage with LEAD and introducing officers hired in the past two years to the program for the first time.

SPD did not arrest everyone at the open-air market on Third and Pine; some scattered to nearby corners, to Pioneer Square, or to other parts of the city. V, an organizer with the drug user solidarity group DUST, says that dispersing people—many of them unhoused—across the city by sweeping corners like Third and Pine can create tension in the places where those people land. “[It] puts a strain on the homeless people in each neighborhood because the service providers there have limited capacity,” they said.  Newcomers can trigger conflicts, V added, that can escalate into violence.

The weeks following SPD’s clearance of Third and Pine have not been peaceful. Eighteen people were shot or stabbed in the past month or so, most of them in or near encampments; in response to some of those shootings, the city cleared encampments in Chinatown, Little Saigon, and the University District. But Harrell disputes that the sweeps in the downtown core fueled an increase in violence elsewhere. “People’s perceptions and urban myths are not always fact,” she said. In Ballard, for instance—the site of two shootings, one of them fatal, in the past month—the deputy mayor said that a pattern of gun violence long predates the crackdowns in downtown Seattle. Continue reading “A Month After “Operation New Day” Crackdown, Impacts on Crime Remain Unclear”

Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since the start of 2021.

By Paul Kiefer

The number of patients in the King County jail’s opioid use disorder treatment program has nearly tripled since January 2021, reaching a high of 156 people by March 31. That trend is showing no sign of slowing, particularly as both Seattle’s mayor and city attorney suggest using the jail as an entry point into addiction treatment as part of the city’s new public safety strategy.

At a press conference last month, Mayor Bruce Harrell commented that “one of the best times to treat someone with drug and alcohol problems, unfortunately, could be when they’re arrested.” Two weeks later, Seattle City Attorney Ann Davison launched an initiative to prioritize booking “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” into jail, ostensibly to “intervene” in their behavioral health crises before finding them treatment opportunities.

But the growing number of patients, staffing shortages at both the jail and community-based care providers, and changes in the landscape of drug use in King County limit the jail’s ability to address the ever-worsening addiction crises that sent overdose deaths skyrocketing in the past three years.

King County’s jails first began offering medication-based treatment for opioid addiction in 2018, allowing patients who had existing prescriptions for buprenorphine—an opioid used to manage and treat addiction—to receive their prescriptions while in jail. In 2019, the jail began connecting new patients to buprenorphine, and in March 2021, Jail Health Services removed a cap on the number of patients allowed in the treatment program, opening buprenorphine access to anyone with a moderate to severe opioid addiction experiencing serious withdrawal in jail.

The program only offers short-term treatment. When a patient is scheduled for release, jail health staff meet with them to develop a plan for continuing their treatment outside of jail; that plan can include a next-day appointment at a medical or addiction treatment provider, a shelter referral, or a seven-day supply of buprenorphine, along with a separate supply of the overdose-reversing drug naloxone. In theory, jail health staff can also offer a “warm hand-off” to community-based addiction treatment providers when their patients leave the jail—a way to start a patient’s release on the right foot.

“When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode. If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”—Michelle Conley, director of integrated care for REACH

Until January 2021, jail health staff weren’t alerted when a patient was scheduled for release, making “warm hand-offs” difficult. Then, during the COVID-19 pandemic, a staffing shortage left the jail’s opioid treatment nurses stretched too thin to connect their patients to community-based healthcare providers when they leave jail. Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for King County Public Health, which oversees Jail Health Services, says that two of the five positions on the opioid use disorder treatment team are currently vacant, leaving the remaining staffers to handle excessive caseloads. The ideal ratio of health staff to patients in the treatment program, she added, is 1 to 25, meaning that the jail could need to add positions to the treatment team if the number of patients grows.

For now, says Michelle Conley, the director of integrated care for REACH, the jail’s release plans for patients in the opioid use treatment program are often at risk of falling apart from the outset. “There are a lot of providers who can and do receive people from the jail, but there’s often a disconnect in terms of getting someone to treatment,” she said.

“A large part of that,” Conley added, “is because Medicaid does not reimburse the costs of going to the jail picking a patient up and transporting them to housing or medical care.” Conley also noted that after leaving jail, a person may need to reactivate their Medicaid benefits to pay for prescriptions and doctor’s visits—a process that can take days or weeks.

Without a direct hand-off to a care provider, Conley said, people leaving jail may not have an easy way to make it to an appointment at a treatment facility or clinic. “When people lack housing and other basic needs, immediately when they’re released from jail, they often go back into survival mode,” she said. “If we can provide some sort of outreach at the time of release, and if we build trust with people by showing up when we promised to show up, we find that people are much more willing and able to follow through with a care plan.”

For people leaving jail, the medications used to treat opioid use disorder are available both through appointments and through a daytime hotline run by the nonprofit healthcare provider NeighborCare. Dr. Matt Perez, a primary care clinician for NeighborCare, says that the current system is a vast improvement from the recent past. “Up until about 10 years ago, the jails offered no treatment for addiction whatsoever, so people were just going into withdrawal and leaving with nothing,” he said. And while about one-fifth of buprenorphine patients at his clinic—including people leaving the jail—don’t show up for their appointments, Perez says that his ability to coordinate with jail health staff to provide buprenorphine to people after their release is improving.

But while no care providers dispute that giving people in jail access to medications like buprenorphine is better than nothing at all, some addiction treatment specialists say that the current medication-based treatments for opioid addiction offered to people in jail don’t match current trends in drug use. Dr. Cyn Kotarski, the medical director for the Public Defender Association in Seattle, says that the spread of fentanyl as a cheaper and more potent replacement for opioids like heroin has rendered current medication-based treatments ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst.

“It takes time for medical research to catch up to realities on the ground,” she said. “Drug use has changed so significantly in Seattle in the past three to five years—in other words, since we first started offering medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder to people in jail—that if we don’t try to rework our approach, we’re going to wind up offering only an obsolete program.”

One key problem, she said, is that standard doses of buprenorphine are substantially less potent than fentanyl, so fentanyl users who suddenly transition to buprenorphine in jail often experience serious and painful withdrawal—a problem that was less pronounced before fentanyl dominated the opioid market. “The vast majority of patients I see say they’re scared to take buprenorphine because of the withdrawal symptoms,” she said. “And as word spreads that switching the buprenorphine makes you sick, that creates a dangerous narrative. If we don’t set up our treatment programs properly, we can end up with a general consensus among people using opioids that buprenorphine is harmful because we’re not using the medication in a way that’s appropriate for fentanyl.”

But changing the dosage of buprenorphine to better match the strength of fentanyl would require experimentation—something that jail health staff can’t do. “Because of the strict controls around drugs to treat opioid use disorder, people are very hesitant to make any changes to dosage unless they get directions from above,” Kotarski said. Continue reading “Barriers to Access, Changing Drug Trends Hinder Jail-Based Treatment Program”

Closure of King County’s Only Work Release for Women Raises Gender Equity Questions

The closed Helen B. Ratcliff House on Beacon Hill in Seattle

By Paul Kiefer

When the only work release facility for women in King County closed last November, it sparked no public outcry—in fact, Washington’s Department of Corrections didn’t even announce it was closing. But for women from King County awaiting their transfer from prison to a work release facility, the closure of the Helen B. Ratcliff House in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood presented a new hurdle.

The few women housed at Helen B. Ratcliff House when it closed transferred to the scarce women’s beds in work release facilities in Tacoma and Olympia.  Women scheduled to move to work release in Seattle often faced even worse options. One woman, who PubliCola will call R to protect her identity, landed at a work release facility in Spokane. “Work release is supposed to be helpful because you can find your footing in your community before you’re fully released,” she said. “I’d never even been to Spokane. I didn’t know anyone there.” Though the Spokane facility had fewer than a dozen residents when she arrived, R noted that roughly half of the women at the facility were from King County.

Work release facilities are low-security detention centers that allow incarcerated people to work, attend school, and visit their families during the final months of their prison sentence.  People tend to transfer to work release facilities in their home county, where they can rebuild their relationships with friends and family, find a steady job, and develop a support system to ease the transition into post-prison life.

“The whole point of work release is to help people acclimate back into their communities,” said Joe Nguyen (D-34, White Center), the vice chair of the senate’s reentry and rehabilitation committee. “If they’re sent somewhere that’s hours away from home, or even to the other side of the state, that’s probably an indicator that work release might not be successful for them.”

In Washington state, work release beds for women, who make up five percent of the state’s incarcerated population, are few and far between. Most of the state’s eleven work release facilities reserve only a handful of beds for women. The facility in Spokane is Washington’s only remaining all-women work release center.

In contrast, incarcerated men from King County still have two all-male work release facilities available to them. The two work release facilities for men in Seattle—one across from the King County Courthouse and another on First Hill—remain open, and the two facilities combined have dozens of vacant beds, in part because COVID-19 outbreaks at the facilities limited the number of people who could be housed safely in each building.

“It’s not equitable,” said Sonja Hallum, the Director of Washington’s Office of Corrections Ombuds (OCO), during a stakeholder meeting last week.

Paula Bond, whose daughter spent time in the mixed-gender work release facility in Tacoma, told PubliCola that single-gender facilities are especially vital for women, regardless of how few women go to work release. “The number one issue why women go to prison is addiction. The number two reason is men, and there’s a lot of crossover,” she said. “There’s a huge correlation between sexual trauma and going to prison for women. It can be traumatizing, or it can be a barrier to get back on your feet, to be placed in a work release with men, and women in western Washington need a place to go for work release if they don’t want to worry about that.”

The company that contracted with the Department of Corrections to run the Helen B. Ratcliff House, called the Progress House Association, informed the DOC two months in advance that it planned to pull out of Seattle, and the 53-bed facility was mostly empty when it closed.

The house wasn’t free of controversy while it was open—in 2019, for instance, the OCO investigated allegations that staff at the facility conspired to retaliate against a resident who criticized the work release program during a meeting with DOC administrators. The allegations fit into a broader pattern of complaints from formerly incarcerated people about work release staff across Washington being too quick to punish residents for minor infractions, including returning to a work release facility late because of public transit delays.

Despite criticisms of the program, work release plays an important role in Washington’s efforts to scale back its prison population and reduce recidivism. In 2019, faced with a growing waitlist for work release beds, the state legislature set aside funding to build new work release facilities, including in King County. Meanwhile, the Department of Corrections set about searching for ways to reduce the state’s prison population to bring down the state’s annual spending on incarceration, adding more urgency to the effort to expand the work release program. Continue reading “Closure of King County’s Only Work Release for Women Raises Gender Equity Questions”

County Proposal Would Expand Right to Counsel Before Warrantless Searches

King County CouncilBy Erica C. Barnett

The King County Council is considering draft legislation that would give adults the right to consult with a defense attorney before being searched by officers with the King County Sheriff’s Office, a right the county and the city of Seattle extended to youth in 2020, and that state legislators expanded statewide last year.

King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a Republican who’s running for Congress in the 8th Congressional District, claimed in a letter to King County Department of Public Defense director Anita Khandelwal  release that the draft bill would “tie the hands” of police, “take away hundreds of hours of deputy time,” and “harm public safety and ultimately cost lives.”

“If police are required to call a defense attorney every time they talk to a subject, criminal investigation would grind to a halt,” Dunn’s letter says.

The bill, which is still in draft form (and has changed since Dunn wrote his letter), would require officers seeking a person’s consent for a search to provide access to a defense attorney before searching them or their belongings. The new requirement wouldn’t apply when police have a warrant; when police have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person has committed or is about to commit a crime; or when police have reason to believe delaying a search would result in a loss of evidence or harm to the public or police, among several other exemptions. A person could also decline a search outright and walk away without consulting with a defense attorney.

Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense, says the proposed legislation would help ensure that people understand their constitutional rights when an officer is asking them to waive those rights. “Studies show that most adults, regardless of race, aren’t aware that they have the right to refuse a search, do not feel free to refuse police requests to search, and frequently ‘interpret questions or suggestions as orders when they come from a person of authority.'”

In Seattle, Khandelwal said, Black people are stopped five times as often as white people, and Native Americans are stopped nine times more frequently.

Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, the head of the council’s law and justice committee, is the most likely sponsor for the legislation. On Thursday, he said he was still considering whether to sponsor the bill, and criticized Dunn for releasing an early draft that had been circulating among council members in a letter that incorrectly implied that it was “leaked.”

“If he had just asked the public defender to share it with him, they would have,” Zahilay said. “It’s not some secret conspiracy.”

The intent behind the bill, Zahilay continued, is to address the imbalance of power and information between officers and people who may not understand that they have the right to say no to being searched, or who may be intimidated by police. “People already have the right to consent or decline a search, and this gives them an added level of protection of being able to talk to a public defender,” Zahilay said. The law providing young people the right to speak to an attorney has been in place for more than a year, Zahilay added, and council members “haven’t heard of any complaints or issues” about the law creating an undue burden on officers.

County Councilmember Claudia Balducci, the former head of King County’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention, noted that the county is currently searching for a new sheriff, and is considering the recommendations of an advisory committee to improve public safety across the county.”I would rather us have a bigger plan that looks at all sides of the issue before we start making big changes, and I’d rather have the new sheriff on board,” Balducci said, but if the legislation is introduced, “I will honor that process. … I wouldn’t say I won’t consider this until we have a bigger plan in place.”

Parents Won’t Have to to Pay Jail Costs for Incarcerated Children; Another Suicide at Downtown Jail Amid Ongoing Staff Shortage

1. Governor Jay Inslee signed legislation on Thursday ending the requirement that parents of children in state-run juvenile detention centers pay for a portion of the cost of their child’s incarceration, a practice known as “parent pay.” The new law will also clear the debts of the roughly 240 families who collectively owed $1.1 million in unpaid custody fees to the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF), which runs Washington’s three juvenile detention facilities. 

DCYF’s 2020-2021 budget assumed that the agency would take in $1.9 million in parent pay revenue over the past two years; Rachel Sottile, the president of the Center for Children and Youth Justice, a children’s rights organization in Seattle, told PubliCola that the agency was able to collect less than a quarter of that figure.

“First of all, DCYF can’t do if its job if it doesn’t have the resources it needs,” she said, “and secondly, parent pay created financial instability for parents that left a lot of youth cycling back into the criminal justice system.” She added that parents who did not pay their debts to DCYF risked facing contempt charges and possible jail time.

In a press release, DCYF Secretary Ross Hunter said he supported eliminating parent pay, calling the practice financially impractical and counterproductive. “It probably costs more to collect [fees from parents] than we bring in and may make it less likely for youth to reunify with their families, destabilizing their transition back to the community,” he said.

Along similar lines, the legislature voted this month to allow judges to waive most of the fines and restitution fees imposed on people convicted of crimes; that bill applies retroactively, opening the door for thousands of people who are currently in prison or who previously spent time in prison to petition courts to relieve them of debts that can present a hurdle to successful re-entry.

2. A 25-year-old man died at Harborview Medical Center after hanging himself in a cell at the King County Correctional Facility in downtown Seattle last week, marking the third death at the jail since the beginning of the year: an unusually high number for this point in the year, especially given the decline in the jail’s population during the pandemic. The deaths come as the county’s Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention continues to lose more corrections officers than it can hire, leaving some officers and other jail staff stretched thin.

Jail staff transferred the man to Harborview Medical Center after a guard found him unresponsive in a cell on March 10; he died from his injuries four days later. Court records indicate he was a trans man; the King County Superior Court referred to him using the last name Kostelak, and according to a source, he may have used the name Damian. Continue reading “Parents Won’t Have to to Pay Jail Costs for Incarcerated Children; Another Suicide at Downtown Jail Amid Ongoing Staff Shortage”