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Seattle council not sold on Mayor Durkan’s plan for prolific offenders

Seattle Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez. (AP)

There’s been a public outcry for action to address Seattle’s prolific offender issue. That was sparked by a February report published by business and neighborhood groups, detailing the small group of so-called homeless “prolific offenders,” cycling in and out of jail, and often dealing with drug or mental health issues.

Seattle, King County leaders pitch plan to address prolific offenders

Mayor Jenny Durkan included a series of pilot programs in her budget proposal to address the offenders including an enhanced probation program as an alternative to jail.

“We’re trying to do a service-enhanced probation where we are working with the individuals not using the traditional model of just court based appointments, but also meeting them at treatment providers, at community centers, at public health clinics,” said Robert Feldstein, a consultant who worked with the mayor’s prolific offender work group.

He says there were 168 people with seven or more cases at Seattle Municipal Court during a two year period, or less than 3 percent of the roughly 12,000 arrests during that time.

Of the 168 convicted, two-thirds got jail while a third got probation. But, only 17 percent of those who got probation were successful, compared to a more than 70 percent success rate for general probation, Feldstein said.

The pilot would use probation counselors who only focus on this group, and are specially trained in harm reduction, in hopes of making prolific offenders more willing to accept services.

There’s also an option to avoid jail by choosing to enter a 28-day inpatient treatment center, followed by outpatient treatment supervised by probation.

Failure to comply with probation would lead to jail time.

The probation proposal is the strongest as far as taking a tough approach, but is it too tough?

“It’s not as blunt an instrument as jail or involuntary treatment, but (probation is) still a pretty blunt instrument in terms of addressing the needs of people who have pretty complex issues,” Councilmember Lorena Gonzalez said.

“Many jurisdictions are moving away from supervision and from probation period, and it seems contradictory for us here at the city of Seattle — lauded as being the most progressive city in the country — to actually be doubling down on probation and supervision as a solution to addressing the needs of this population,” Gonzalez continued.

She wasn’t the only councilmember with concerns.

Councilmember Lisa Herbold questioned why the city should spend money on the untested pilot programs instead of expanding programs like LEAD and VITAL.

“These are programs focused on this same population of people. They have demonstrated their outcomes, they’re very successful and they’re under-resourced,” Herbold said.

Several municipal court judges came to address the councilmember’s concerns, including Judge Adam Eisenberg, who stressed that this was a small group of specific types of prolific offenders who have often already failed at LEAD or other voluntary programs.

“This is an alternative to jail. If we don’t have this sort of alternative, and obviously it’s an experiment to see how well it works, that leaves the judges in a very difficult position,” Eisenberg said, stressing the importance of giving the court additional options.

Eisenberg said the enhanced wraparound services — including the ability for probation counselors to go out and meet in the community and hopefully be trained in Medically Assisted Treatment — are unique and exciting options judges are eager to explore.

Despite the small size of the repeat offender group the program is aimed at, Gonzalez was not convinced designing a supervision system specifically for them was the answer, pointing out they’re also the hardest population to serve and usually most resistant to services.

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“I just feel like we’re overselling this as though it’s a meaningful tool to modify their behavior, and I’m not sure that I’m convinced that that theory is going to hold true,” Gonzalez said.

“When we have people who are repeatedly coming through the criminal justice system and they’re posing a community safety threat, we have to have a way of both serving their needs but also serving the needs of the community and to keep the community safe, and there are large impacts that these individuals are causing on the community,” said Judge Damon Shadid, who supports a softer approach of community services for people if it’s working.

“When they’re not responding well to that though, we have to think about the community and community safety, as well as the needs of the individual, and what we’re asking for here is a tool to try to address that,” Shadid said.

Gonzalez and others still had many concerns that will have to be hashed out as this goes through the budget process, including that probation leads to more jail time if someone violates it.

The proposal comes from the work group the mayor convened after the prolific offender report in February. that included prosecutors, judges, elected officials, police, community groups and public defenders.

However, councilmembers noted in the meeting that not everyone in the work group agreed on the recommendations, including county public defenders, which openly criticized the probation aspect in a recent statement.

The mayor’s plan also includes includes coordinating resources, having a jail staffer link prolific offenders with services when they’re released, and a new enhanced shelter in an unused portion of the King County jail that also offers treatment.

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