By Erica C. Barnett
When City Attorney Ann Davison announced her “high utilizers initiative” last year, she said it would go beyond previous attempts to punish people who commit misdemeanors by connecting them to case management, treatment, and other services. In reality, according to a report from Davison’s office, the initiative has only managed to temporarily incapacitate some people by locking them in the understaffed downtown jail, a “solution” to crimes like shoplifting and trespassing that does nothing to address the root causes that lead people to use drugs, steal from stores, and act out in public.
The report appears to feature a lot of hard numbers, but a closer look reveals that many are based on assumptions about how individual people would behave—assumptions that would undoubtedly be altered by effective interventions like housing, mental health care, and addiction treatment focused on harm reduction rather than coercion.
According to the report, the high utilizers list included 168 people over the last year—all individuals who have had at least 12 misdemeanor referrals to the city attorney’s office over the prior year, and at least one in the most recent eight months. Of those, 142 were booked into the downtown jail for misdemeanors or warrants, under a special exception to jail rules that have eliminating booking for most misdemeanors. On average, each “high utilizer” served 117 days in jail in jail last year—nearly four months per person.
In January and February 2022, before the high utilizer initiative went into effect, the average daily population at the downtown jail was 910; for the same period this year, it was 1,220. The increase is the result of a complex mix of factors, but jailing 142 people for low-level misdemeanors is undoubtedly among them.
Because most of the people on the high utilizers list ended up incarcerated, the report notes, they ended up fewer crimes than they had in previous years, averaging 2.7 misdemeanor referrals per year compared to a pre-initiative average of 6.3. This, the report says, is proof the initiative is working: “The principal reason for the significant drop in high utilizer criminal activity was that they were quickly held accountable and booked into jail for their criminal activity,” the report says. “Holding high utilizers accountable for repeat criminal conduct is the game-changer that reduced their impact on the City.”
Already, these numbers are speculative—who can say, for example, whether a “high utilizer” who received housing and case management, rather than blunt-force punishment, would have gone on to commit their own “average” number of misdemeanors? The report veers further into extrapolation and guesswork with an “estimate” that locking people on the list up for misdemeanors has prevented “over 750 criminal police referrals reflecting many thousands of criminal acts.” If this is true (and if “high utilizers” are really superpredators who deserve harsher treatment, including exclusion from community court), the city’s overall misdemeanor rate should have declined appreciably. Yet according to the Seattle Police Department’s 2022 crime report, misdemeanor theft (which includes shoplifting and theft from buildings) went up 5 percent last year.
The report includes “examples of reduced public safety impact” identifying some of the high utilizers by first name and last initial, making them easily identifiable—something PubliCola has not done when writing about the initiative in an effort to avoid re-traumatizing people who may have been targets of negative media attention. It also lists people, by name, who “absconded” from mandatory treatment for their addictions or died during the period covered by the report.
Not surprisingly, the report also concludes that people “failed” to follow through with coercive residential treatment, which has an extremely low success rate, particularly for people with co-occurring mental illness and those experiencing homelessness. Even people who voluntarily enter residential treatment for opiate use disorder are likely to leave against medical advice, and the vast majority of people who enter traditional residential treatment relapse—facts that ought to argue in favor of different solutions, rather than more of the same.
According to Davison’s report, though, the problem is that the people on her list just aren’t “ready” to accept the treatment they’re offered.
“While there were a small handful of success stories, the great majority of times in which out-of-custody addiction treatment services were offered and accepted, the defendant fled within the first 24 hours,” the report says. “At least five high utilizers absconded on more than one occasion when they were given a chance to address their substance use disorders with treatment. … That leads us to the conclusion that most high utilizers are not ready to go direct to out-of-custody, voluntary addiction treatment programs.”
“If individuals stabilize during in-custody time, there is an opportunity to successfully graduate the individual to out-of-custody residential treatment after they had demonstrated active participation,” the report concludes.
King County does offer medication for opiate dependency behind bars—an evidence-based solution that, unfortunately, doesn’t work long-term if a person doesn’t have immediate access to equivalent treatment when they’re released. As we’ve reported, the county’s jail-based treatment programs suffer from the same lack of staffing that has led the ACLU to sue the county over inmates’ lack of access to basic physical and mental health care; jail-based treatment also has the best chance of succeeding if people can immediately access housing and health care when they’re released, something the jail system is poorly equipped to provide.