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King County sheriff, executive to meet on proposed cuts to sheriff’s department

Executive Dow Constantine. (King County TV)

King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht is expected to have a sit-down conversation with county Executive Dow Constantine on Thursday, following his announcement a day earlier that he plans to propose shifting millions of dollars usually earmarked for law enforcement and the traditional criminal justice system into community-based racial justice programs.

Constantine says protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd over the summer have created an opportunity that he feels a sense of urgency to act on.

“We are today [having] this conversation, having broken out onto the national stage and white America in particular, suddenly realizing that there’s something they’ve been missing, here is a chance for this government and more broadly, this entire community to find a way to begin dismantling the racism that is really wrapped not just into a criminal legal system or governmental institutions, but to all institutions in our society,” Constantine said.

“I feel a real need for us to act before this window closes,” he added.

To that end, Constantine announced a series of changes, new programs, and investments to make significant racial and criminal justice reforms in King County, including shifting $4.6 million in marijuana tax revenues from the King County Sheriff’s Office to invest in community-based programs.

“Since the legalization of marijuana, King County has received a portion of the retail excise tax, and directed that money to law enforcement,” said Constantine. “It’s time to shift those resources to other uses that directly benefit communities.”

The executive also wants to spend $2.8 million to help people vacate previous marijuana convictions that make it harder to get a job and housing.

“It is a fact that Black communities have historically and still currently [have] been disproportionately harmed by our nation’s war on drugs. And this begins to undo some of that harm,” Constantine explained.

Other proposals he expects to include in his upcoming two-year spending plan include a program conceptualized and developed by community organizations called Restorative Community Passageways.

“In lieu of filing juvenile charges, the King County prosecuting attorney’s office will refer up to 800 young people each year to receive comprehensive community based services. Its funding of $6.2 million includes services and support for those who have been harmed as well as restitution to help undo the harm cost,” Constantine said.

There is also a new felony diversion program.

“My office will also be working with King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg on another effort providing community based services instead of filing charges against some 1,000 adults who face their first non-violent offenses, including misdemeanors and felonies,” the executive explained.

Another $600,000 would be set aside for a Regional Approach Method – or RAM – to reduce gun violence, especially in communities of color.

“A coalition based approach to this epidemic focused on the needs of Black and African American boys and young men in particular, and with everyone’s efforts, we will implement a comprehensive strategic plan to prevent gun violence across the region,” said King County Public Health director Patty Hayes.

“It is critically important to bring partners together based upon where we know youth violence has been happening. So one of the critical things we’ve done is bring in partners already working in that area, CHOOSE 180, and Community Passageways, those experts who work with youth and have staff that have lived, experienced, or trusted community partners, helping us build this along with the leaders in communities that are experiencing this,” Hayes added.

Some of those groups who have been pushing for such investments applauded the move.

“It is a moral decision to begin taking steps toward righting historic wrongs,” said Marlon Brown with Black Lives Matter Seattle-King County. “It is a moral decision to put measures in place that will change Black lives. The priorities presented today will began to address some of the injustices, the Black community and other communities of color have experienced for decades in King County.”

The King County Sheriff was less enthused about not having been included in discussions about the plan to re-allocate dollars generally reserved for law enforcement.

“Since Executive Constantine did not speak with Sheriff Johanknecht about his plan for the Marijuana Revenue, Sheriff Johanknecht is trying to determine if this $4.6 million dollar reduction to the Sheriff’s Office revenue budget would force cuts to service to unincorporated King County. $4.6 million dollars equates to approximately 30, 911 patrol deputies, or an approximate 22% reduction in 911 service to unincorporated areas of King County,” the sheriff’s office said in a written statement.

But in unveiling the plan Wednesday, Constantine noted: “The sheriff is a partner in this work and the community models are predicated on the notion of us providing some resources to help the community be able to be at the table and fully participate, to work with our office but also to work with the sheriff’s office to come up with solutions that suit the community and provide we think, a greater level of public safety.”

Critics worry this shift in dollars could lead to more dangerous criminals on the street, but Satterberg passionately disagrees.

“This is what criminal justice reform looks like, it’s when you divest from the system that doesn’t work and you invest in community resources to surround an individual and the victim and make them whole. It’s when you reimagine everything that we’ve thought until now, this is a big deal,” Satterberg said.

“We’re not talking about putting violent offenders back on the streets, that’s just not what’s going to happen here,” he added.

Those on the defense side of the criminal justice system agreed, calling the current system punitive, expensive, and ineffective.

“What we’re looking to do now is follow the lead of community partners who’ve been telling us this for years and understand that what people need is not a punitive system, but one really that is going to support them, help them build connections, have those pro-social contacts that keep them out of that system and connected to their community,” said Anita Khandelwal, director of the King County Department of Public Defense.

The sheriff’s office says Sheriff Johanknecht is expected to meet with the executive on Thursday regarding the proposals to try to determine how they would impact her office.

More details on the proposals are expected Tuesday when Constantine transmits his two-year spending plan to the King County Council, which will have to sign off on these proposals.

For now, more details can be found here.

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