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What King County judges need to address prolific offenders

King County Courthouse. (penjelly, Flickr)

Drug addiction, mental health, homelessness, and crime.

It is all intertwined and at crisis levels in Seattle and King County, where a recent report found much of the crime is being committed by a relatively small group of the same repeat offenders who are continually kicked back out onto our streets.

RELATED: Homeless have King County Courthouse workers feeling unsafe

How can that happen? Why aren’t these repeat offenders locked up and kept off the streets to protect public safety?

King County Superior Court Judges Johanna Bender and Veronica Alicea Galvan say it’s not that simple.

First, as far as the courts go, it is important to remember judges can only deal with the cases that are actually filed and brought to them, so some responsibility lies with prosecutors.

Judge Galvan says on top of that, in Washington state, there is a presumption of release when charges are initially filed and a person is in court for their initial appearance or arraignment.

“In other words, it is presumed that people will be released unless it can be shown that they’re going to interfere with the administration of justice, they’re not going to appear in court, or they are going to be a danger of committing another violent offense within the community,” Judge Galvan explained.

Less Restrictive Alternative [LRA]

When someone makes an initial appearance, judges consider those three things and then decide whether that person meets the requirements to keep them locked up as they await trial, or whether they should be placed on what’s known as a Less Restrictive Alternative [LRA].

In Seattle, that’s the Community Corrections Alternative Placement, or CCAP, programs. The basic version involves the suspect checking in daily and receiving reminders about their upcoming court dates. It’s more of an effort to ensure they show up for court.

Courts also have what’s known as CCAP enhanced.

“Which is sometimes provided to individuals who may need more social support,” Galvan said.

“You have access to individuals who can help you potentially with housing and with these other things,” Galvan said, adding that they also consider technology options such as electronic home monitoring and GPS monitoring when deciding the best way to deal with pre-trial release.

Unfortunately, those CCAP programs are only available in Seattle right now. Not having them available in other King County courts, such as Kent, is a problem, says Judge Bender.

“One of the things we have learned, that seems to be just unimpeachable true, is that most of the people in the criminal justice system — especially who are in the criminal justice system as repeat offenders — are here because they are struggling with a behavioral health disorder, with mental illness, with substance abuse, often with trauma issues in their lives, and so if we don’t give them the support that they need to address those underlying challenges, they are very likely to reoffend,” Bender explained.

How bad is it?

Familiar Faces

“The Familiar Faces, which is a program of the executive branch, just did an audit of the most frequent utilizers of the King County jail, folks booked at least four times in a 12 month period. I believe they found that approximately 98 percent of those folks had an identifiable and often untreated mental health and/or chemical dependency use disorder,” Bender added.

The recent audit of the program Judge Bender referenced was not yet available, the most recent data from 2016 is here.

Judge Galvan says that is a huge challenge, because when they’re dealing with substance abuse and mental health issues, competency comes into play.

“Because you can’t proceed to trial with an individual who is not competent … that’s difficult and it is compounded when you have intersections of substance abuse and mental health,” Galvan said.

“Competency and the ability to proceed to trial — we’ve seen a significant increase in some of these issues and civil commitment proceedings as well, ITA [Involuntary Treatment Act] over the last 10 years has increased,” Galvan said.

“More than doubled,” Judge Bender added.

When someone is found incompetent to stand trial, judges have a couple of options. They can send them for restoration, which is a 90-180 day involuntary treatment to restore competency.

However, Judge Bender says that too has been a challenge.

“Right now, we’re finding that about a third of people in King County who are released on Less Restrictive Orders come back to the hospital acutely psychotic just within the period of the Less Restrictive Order — so just within that 90 days or that 180 days a third of them are coming back psychotic,” Bender said.

“So we’re not doing a good enough job of the warm hand off between the hospital and the court system and the outpatient community mental health provider,” Bender added. “That is not said to cast blame on any of those stakeholders … it is a system that is stressed to the point of acute crisis.”

There are also cases where the person has been sent for restoration multiple times in the past and it hasn’t worked. Often, in those cases, judge’s hands are tied. They must dismiss the case without prejudice and refer for evaluation of potential civil commitment to either Western or Eastern State Hospital.

The problem with that is part of the state’s ongoing mental health services crisis, especially at Western State Hospital, where Kelly Stowe with DSHS’ Behavioral Health division, says the biggest challenges are finding bed space. It’s especially difficult for involuntary criminal and civil commitment patients. Part of the reason for the lack of bed space is the long wait to discharge patients.

Awaiting evaluations

It’s that logjam that led to a federal lawsuit known as Trueblood the state recently settled, which was filed after it was found that county jails were holding criminal defendants for months as they awaited competency and restoration evaluations.

If a judge finds restoration is not an option and refers a person for evaluation for potential long-term involuntary treatment, a part of the process handled by the state Health Care Authority, the person can only be held in jail for a few days. If the evaluation does not happen by then, they must be released.

This was the case in a recent Seattle Municipal Court Case involving a man accused of trying to throw a woman — a stranger — off of the Madison Street overpass. The suspect had a long history of mental health issues, including involuntary treatment and violent behavior. He was deemed a risk to himself and others, and found incompetent. Because previous restoration efforts had failed, he was still out on the streets despite having been arrested for multiple attacks on strangers in the months leading up to the bridge incident.

In each of those previous cases, because restoration was not requested by the prosecutor — since it had failed in the past — the judge ordered the man be “evaluated by a Designated Crisis Responder to assess his need for civil commitment,” according to Gary Ireland with Seattle Municipal Court.

“Once this referral is made, the defendant can continue to be held in the jail for a maximum of 72 hours awaiting evaluation,” Ireland added.

Here’s the gap.

Once that referral for evaluation for civil commitment is made by the judge, that is the end of the judge’s involvement. There is no follow-up by the court because at that point it is a behavioral health program issue.

There are multiple bills making their way through the Legislature and budget proposals to try to address some of the issues surrounding the state’s mental health and criminal justice system.

Both judges say, overall, it is important for everyone to take a more holistic look at the criminal justice system, including ensuring offenders get the help they need.

Judge Bender stresses at every step, public safety plays a role in the decision making process.

“Whether it’s Judge Galvan making dozens of release decisions every morning, whether it’s me sentencing people at the end of their cases, we are required by law to be considering public safety,” Bender said.

“What we’re trying to do is pull back the curtain a little bit and expose how complicated those decisions are,” Bender said. “That even an analysis of safety isn’t as simple as it sounds when you know that at the end of incarceration a person may be released without treatment or services for the issues that are leading to the anti-social behavior.”

“But I think all of us agree that at some point, people are going to get out of custody,” Judge Galvan added. “You’re not going to lock your way out of these issues, you can’t just pile a bunch of folks in jail indefinitely and say problem solved we’re done. It’s not that simple.”

Asked what they need most to improve the situation, both judges said more resources and better information.

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