City Attorney’s Initiative Targets ‘High Utilizers’ of the Criminal Justice System

by Paul Kiefer

(This article originally appeared on PubliCola and has been reprinted under an agreement.) 

The Seattle City Attorney’s Office debuted a plan March 15 to identify people who are frequently accused of committing crime — or, as they put it, “high utilizers of the criminal justice system” — to prioritize bookings into the King County jail or for referral to mental health or addiction treatment services. 

So far, the office says it has compiled a list of 118 “high utilizers” who, according to City Attorney Ann Davison, “create a disproportionate impact on public safety in Seattle.”

However, the initiative may run into an obstacle in the near future: The service providers the initiative will rely on to provide case management may be stretched thin by the surge of new “high utilizer” clients sent to them by the City Attorney’s Office.

The initiative mirrors similar projects that the City Attorney’s Office launched in 2012 and 2019 to identify “high utilizers,” though earlier iterations of the program championed by current Deputy City Attorney Scott Lindsay favored terms such as “high-impact offenders” or “prolific offenders” to describe the people considered high priorities for law enforcement. Lindsay was a public safety advisor to former mayor Ed Murray who led the charge to focus police resources on “prolific offenders” in 2019.

This time, said Davison spokesman Anthony Derrick, the City Attorney’s basic goal is to create a working list of people who frequently interact with the criminal justice system. That includes notes on “who they are, what they’ve been through, and what we’ve tried that didn’t work in the past.” 

Every person on their initial list has been referred by police to the City Attorney’s Office 12 or more times in the past five years and at least once in the past eight months, most often for theft or trespassing.

As a starting point, Derrick added that the Seattle City Attorney’s office reached an agreement with the King County Department of Adult & Juvenile Detention to book “high utilizers” into jail for low-level crimes that wouldn’t generally land someone in custody.

“It’s a chance for us to get people with a long history of challenges off the street, at least for the time being, so we have a bit of time to try to intervene,” Derrick said.

King County Department of Public Defense Director Anita Khandelwal views the initiative as a repetition of a failed strategy. 

“Over the last decade, the City has repeatedly announced similarly named initiatives that would focus more law enforcement resources on those already most policed as a strategy for addressing public safety,” she said. “This tired strategy of arresting, prosecuting, and jailing is expensive and clearly ineffective.”

Lisa Daugaard, the co-executive director of the Public Defenders Association and a co-founder of the diversion program LEAD, which stands for Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion, sees the potential for success.  She says the initiative is built on a solid foundation — addressing the needs of “high utilizers” on a case-by-case basis. 

Daugaard believes Davison could avoid the errors of past crackdowns by pushing her counterparts in city and county government to expand programs like LEAD to accommodate a new surge in clients. While LEAD could take on all 118 people as new clients, she said, LEAD would be unable to take any new clients for the foreseeable future, including people who the City Attorney’s Office may add to the “high utilizers” list in the future.

“We might not have the capacity we need,” Daugaard said, “but that doesn’t mean the City Attorney can’t advocate for more capacity for us… The fact that there aren’t the ideal resources to care for someone doesn’t mean we should avoid having a conversation about what to do. The best thing we can do is sit around a table and talk through our options.” 

Daugaard added that the presence of Natalie Walton-Anderson, the new head of the criminal division in the City Attorney’s Office who previously supervised the King County Prosecutor’s Office’s partnership with LEAD, gives her reason to be hopeful that the office is serious about including service providers in the decision-making process about how to work with someone on the “high utilizer” list.

She reasons that the City Attorney’s Office and its partners — namely the Seattle Police Department (SPD) — may not need to rely on arrests and booking to reach people on the “high utilizer” list. 

“Just because people are under arrest doesn’t mean they need to go to the jail. That decision falls to police, not the prosecutors,” Daugaard said.

She added that she hopes the City Attorney’s Office will be receptive to the message that jailing so-called “high utilizers” may not improve public safety in the long run. 

“Unless the circumstances that land people on the list are addressed — a lack of legal income and trauma, among other things — no quote-unquote treatment strategy in jail is going to make a difference in a person’s behavior,” Daugaard said. “If there’s a table, and we’re invited to it, I will argue strenuously that jail is not the place to invest resources.”

PubliCola has reached out to SPD to ask whether the department plans to direct officers to resume making post-arrest referrals to LEAD; in the past year, nearly all of the people referred to LEAD for behavioral health or housing support came from non-police sources, ranging from the City Attorney’s Office and the Seattle Fire Department to neighborhood business associations.

In the meantime, 16 of the 118 people currently on the City Attorney’s “high utilizer” list are already in custody at the King County jail: 10 for misdemeanor offenses and six for felonies. 

Whether anyone remains in custody in the long term, Derrick said, is a decision for the Seattle Municipal Court and King County Superior Court. 

The Seattle Municipal Court is already processing a surge of new cases from the City Attorney’s Office, which filed more than twice as many charges in the final week of February as it did in the first week of January.

Paul Faruq Kiefer is a journalist, historian, and born-and-bred Seattleite. He has published work with KUOW, North Carolina Public Radio, and The Progressive magazine, and he is currently working on a podcast for KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Paul reports on police accountability for PubliCola.

Featured image: The Seattle Police Department’s mobile precinct parked at the intersection of 12th Ave. S. and S. Jackson St. (Photo: Paul Kiefer)

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