King County judges’ hands tied in prolific homeless offender cases
A recent study from former Ed Murray staffer Scott Lindsay concluded that Seattle is struggling to deal with its most prolific homeless criminal offenders. And while the city is dealing with a homelessness crisis, it is also a crisis of the legal system, according to King County Judge Sean O’Donnell.
“I started out as a prosecutor working down here and then became a judge, and where we are now in the last three or four years, it really is at its worst,” O’Donnell said.
Judge O’Donnell works in downtown Seattle at the King County Courthouse, where employees and jurors have cited concerns over surrounding homelessness in the area on 3rd Avenue, drug abuse, and assaults.
That’s all fed into by a significant uptick in cases of defendants being involuntarily hospitalized, because they present an acute danger to themselves and others. According to O’Donnell, that number previously sat around 2,500 filings a year as recently as a decade ago. In 2018, those filings had doubled to 5,000.
So what keeps putting prolific homeless offenders back out on the street? For the courts, the legal framework carries a handful of limitations.
A presumption of innocence generally makes it so a judge’s responsibility is to keep a defendant out of custody during the trial process. That can only be overlooked if any of three circumstances occur.
“I have to either find the person presents a substantial danger of committing a future act of violence, I have to find that they’re not likely to show up to court, or I have to find that they will interfere with the administration of justice,” O’Donnell laid out.
O’Donnell’s mornings can typically be spent presiding over dozens of cases, where he’s responsible for judging a defendant on those criteria, with little in the way of context.
“I can have between 30 and 40 cases on a morning, where I’m being asked to make relief decisions in a very brief period of time, with very limited information,” he said.
O’Donnell went on to note that those three requirements don’t cover property crime, one of the common denominators among many of the prolific homeless offenders cited in Lindsay’s study.
In terms of a long-term solution, O’Donnell said that his hands are largely tied as a member of the judiciary working under those limitations. Even so, he pointed out that there are people in power right now who could make the necessary changes.
“There are folks who do have the capacity to address this who live in our city, run our city, run our county, [and] live in our county, and I guess I’ll leave it at that,” he said.