Study: 1 of 5 booked into jail are homeless, mostly for nonviolent crimes

Feb 20, 2019, 1:33 PM
seattle homeless, prolific homeless...
King County Courthouse. (penjelly, Flickr)
(penjelly, Flickr)

The cyclical relationship between homelessness and crime is a regular feature of the Seattle justice system, but a new study illuminates just how pronounced it is.

According to report by Crosscut, of the 16,927 people booked into jail in 2018, 3,211 of them were homeless, placing the number of homeless arrested at approximately one out of five. It’s striking data considering that homeless people make up only 1 percent of the population, and that the 3,211 consisted of 1,000 homeless people who were repeat offenders.

“When your life is as broken as a lot of homeless lives are, for them to appear in court is much tougher than most of us who have regular jobs and lives,” said KIRO Radio’s Tom Tangney. “Because of that, every time that happens, they end being arrested and put in jail, setting off a cascade of negative effects.”

RELATED: Cleaning up Seattle’s homelessness crisis in Northgate

Because many homeless have difficulty making their court date, they’re often issued a “failure to appear” (FTA) warrant, meaning that the next time an officer runs their name for any reason, the warrant shows up and they’re arrested again.

Many of the offenses involved non-violent crimes like theft, drugs, trespassing, property damage, and outstanding warrants, with assault accounting for 17 percent. Theft was the most prominent homeless crime at 20 percent.

Regardless of the crime, the arrest tends to worsen an already bad homeless situation. “You’re in jail for however long, you come out, you have a criminal record, it’s already hard to find housing and a job with a criminal record,” Tom said.

“But you’re also isolated, you’re cut off from your case manager, you occasionally lose your belongings in the intervening time, you lose a spot in your shelter, and a lot of these things compound themselves more and more.”

RELATED: Why does Seattle outpace most of the country with rise in homeless?

For KIRO Radio’s John Curley, it’s all an unfortunate process for all parties involved, but not a surprising one considering Seattle’s policies.

“Most of these cops know these people,” Curley said. ‘Hey Bob, what’s going on?’ And then they run the numbers on Bob and find an outstanding warrant. ‘I’ve got to take you in, Bob.'”

“It’s this cycle which costs money, and takes time, but it’s part of what happens when you attract homeless people to your city.”

Tom and Curley on KIRO Radio 97.3 FM
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Study: 1 of 5 booked into jail are homeless, mostly for nonviolent crimes