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Possible solution to Seattle’s prolific offenders is expensive, but effective

Making downtown Seattle feel safe has been an ongoing issue with regards to prolific offenders, and every so often we check in with other cities to see how they handle that issue.

In this case we spoke to Ron Cunningham, a Minneapolis Probation Officer, who joined Seattle’s Morning News to discuss how he — along with two city attorneys and some cooperative police officers and some social services — sit down at the table and try to solve this problem.

“We track all sorts of stuff from their number of arrests or number of police contacts to number of detox admissions, number of hospitalizations,” he said. “And then we also started tracking: Did they receive chemical health services? Did we get them connected with mental health services? Did we get them into some sort of housing?”

“But we’ve had a reduction in recidivism on some of these individuals upwards of 70 percent.”

Whereas in Seattle a prolific offender might be arrested and released and then never show up for court date, the probation-oriented system tries to ensure that they do in fact show up, and stresses more accountability in the process.

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“On a normal misdemeanor, say, public urination or something like that, they’ll get a year of probation, 90 days stayed time. So a lot of these folks will plead to get out of jail. They’ll agree to be on probation, and it’s not uncommon that especially the first few times that I’m working with them, they will not follow through and call me,” he said.

“And then we pick him up a second time and say, ‘Here’s the deal. You’re on probation. You agreed to this, and this is what we’re going to do. If you don’t want to do this, then you can just go ahead and execute your time and go to the workhouse. The problem is when you get out in 60 days or whatever credit you have, my approach is always: ‘What’s different? What is going to change?’ I try to connect with them at some point.”

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A recent report asserts that Seattle’s city attorney doesn’t prosecute roughly half of the non-traffic arrests brought to his office by police, and moves slowly to file charges on the rest.

Taking data from municipal court system, Seattle police and City Attorney Pete Holmes’ office, “System Failure 2” asserts that the city prosecutor declines to file on nearly half of the referrals it receives (5,000 cases each year); takes more than six months to file charges on cases it does move forward; and declines to press charges 65 percent of the people who are suspected of crimes but not in custody.

Reducing prolific offenders saves costs, increases public spending

While the approach Minneapolis is taking may seem costly and bureaucratic, Cunningham says that long-term the reduction in recidivism saves the city money and makes the streets safer.

“We’ve not spent more money on that and I think in the long-term, yes, we’re saving money,” he said. “At the end of the day, none of this is free, and none of it is cheap. But if you look at an individual that is arrested and that involves officer time, if they’re get booked in the jail, there’s a cost related to that, or if there’s involvement with law enforcement, there’s a cost for that. There’s a cost for the transport to detox. There’s a cost for the three days that they spend in detox. Everything adds up.”

“We had a few folks that were in the one million dollars club, that over time cost the various resources in the city of Minneapolis roughly a $1 million a person. So there is definitely a cost savings and trying to utilize some other resource than jail.”

Listen to Seattle’s Morning News weekday mornings from 5-9 a.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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