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One Seattle judge, drug crimes, and a limited system

(AP)

Municipal Judge Ed McKenna has spent 10 years on the bench in Seattle. Just this past week he encountered a case that has become common in the city.

“I had a defendant who had been charged with two counts of theft, two different cases, one from Macy’s, the other from Target downtown Seattle,” he said. “The person had a serious history of drug offenses and thefts on their history. So it was apparent to everyone this person had a drug problem. When they were apprehended in one of those cases, they had two grams of heroin in their pocket and admitted to stealing to support their habit.”

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“The recommendation from the prosecutor was to plead to one of those cases, dismiss the other,” McKenna said. “And impose eight days in jail — which the person already served — and close the case. ‘Close the case’ means there are no services.”

McKenna told this story at a forum hosted by the Downtown Seattle Association, moderated by KIRO Radio’s Dave Ross. The forum was focused on the city’s criminal justice system and perceived failures regarding “prolific offenders” — people who move in and out of the justice system while continuing to commit crimes.

The person who appeared before McKenna last week could be considered as one such prolific offender. It was just one case, but one that appears in front of him often, with many different defendants. They have similar stories — drug addictions leading to low-level crimes. Yet, there are few options currently available to the justice system to truly remedy the problem.

“I said ‘Isn’t this this exactly the type of offense the community is complaining about? What incentive does the defendant have to not re-enter the store and what services are we going to impose on this defendant to make sure they get the treatment they need so they don’t re-offend and be back here next week?’” he said.

Judge McKenna did not follow the prosecutor’s recommendation. He imposed treatment on the defendant. But the story is likely not going to end there. Solutions to the issue aren’t so simple.

As McKenna sees it, from his place on the bench, there is no significant effort — or an established system — in the courts to get people treatment and other services they need, which are related to the causes of crime.

“The problem is we don’t have an inpatient treatment facility that I can immediately order that person into,” he said. “The only available inpatient treatment is 30 days out. So then it becomes an issue of ‘Can I ethically hold that person in custody while I wait for a bed to become available? Or do I release them on the street?’ Knowing that they are going to go right back out, steal from a store, put the needle in their arm, and be right back in my court. Some people feel it’s simply not fair to incarcerate a person because of their addiction.”

King County has a drug court. Seattle does not. The Seattle court does not prosecute drug offenses, rather it deals with offenses related to drugs — such as the theft case in front of Judge McKenna. He says that if it becomes apparent that drugs are related, he cannot forward the defendant to the county. He also says that he cannot force someone into treatment — there is no option for an in-custody, inpatient treatment facility available to the courts.

As a side note, McKenna says there are 400 beds in the west wing of the Seattle jail that are currently vacant. They are now being turned into a homeless shelter. He believes a better use would have been for an in-custody, inpatient facility. But it takes two, he argues. It would take a judge to order it, and a prosecutor to recommend and support it. McKenna says he cannot speak for the prosecutors.

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