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King County Prosecutor: Jail time not the solution to homelessness, drug addiction

According to King County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Satterberg, there are “strategies” to solve the drug problem, homelessness, and violence in our community, as well as “choices to make about things we can invest in.”

“It’s cheaper to help people than it is to punish them,” Satterberg said.

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Putting every person in jail for every crime has not worked in the past, Satterberg said when he visited KIRO Radio’s Gee and Ursula Show in studio Thursday, citing drug cases when he started as a prosecutor 35 years ago.

“We can invest a whole bunch of money into the criminal justice system and say, ‘Let’s lock up people who have a drug addiction,’ and we did that [in the ’80s],” Satterberg said. “Frankly, if prosecuting people who had a drug addiction worked, we wouldn’t have a drug problem today.”

LEAD, Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, a program Satterberg helped start nine years ago, created a strategy to connect and help people, particularly those with drug addictions, instead of putting them behind bars.

“What LEAD does is it gives the police officer that extra chance, that option, one more tool on the tool belt, rather than take you to jail for that little bit of heroin that was in the needle that I found in your pocket, instead, let’s call a case manager who can start working with that person on all the things they need to stabilize themselves,” Satterberg said.

He referred to this as the “harm reduction format.”

“It helps people do less harm to themselves, thus less harm to the community,” Satterberg said.

Show host Ursula Reutin raised the issue of repeat offenders, citing a 2019 report from the Downtown Seattle Association that showed 100 of the most prolific offenders were responsible for a majority of the crimes, most of them homeless or addicted to drugs.

While there is no evidence to show that the suspects of the recent shooting in downtown Seattle were dealing drugs, Marquise Tolbert and William Tolliver are repeat offenders, with 60 combined arrests between the two of them.

Satterberg noted that a lot of these arrests were because the two men did not show up for court. After being charged with a misdemeanor, if the person does not show up to court, the judge issues an arrest warrant.

“In misdemeanor courts, you don’t get a lot of time in jail,” Satterberg said. “Cities don’t want to pay for somebody to be in jail for a year when they shoplifted something. So it’s a series of court appearances, convictions, maybe a brief time in jail if you didn’t show up for court and you got picked up on a warrant.”

It’s not until someone is charged with a felony that prison comes into the conversation, according to Satterberg. Under Washington state sentencing law, there is still a certain number of felony convictions required to get to prison, as opposed to jail.

Satterberg clarified that prison is where people are sent when serving a sentence of a year or more, where jail is less than a year.

Reutin pressed Satterberg on complaints that the county’s justice system has become a revolving door.

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The system, Satterberg believes, does not allow for preventative detention or action as it exists now.

“This frustration is real, it’s legitimate,” Satterberg said. “But a lot of times people express a desire about a justice system that they wish we had and not the one that we actually have.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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