by Anita Khandelwal and Mark Stroh
The Seattle City Attorney’s Office has embarked on a strategy that will harm our community’s most vulnerable members and lead to the incarceration of individuals too mentally ill to stand trial. The city attorney should abandon this counterproductive effort and allow service providers to work with these individuals without criminal legal system interference.
This tried-and-failed strategy targets 118 people whom the city attorney calls “high utilizers” of the criminal legal system. The city attorney intends to “prioritize” cases involving these individuals and has asked jail administrators to make exceptions to their normal processing practices and book people on the list if they are charged with misdemeanors. The city attorney is also attempting to presumptively exclude everyone on this list from Seattle’s Community Court, which specializes in “developing a network of supports outside the criminal justice system.”
These actions will harm some of our community’s most vulnerable members — people who are unhoused, experiencing deep poverty, and struggling with unmet behavioral health needs.
The approach is also profoundly counterproductive: Most of the people on their list — 62% — face what are called “competency” issues — meaning a judge has determined they may be too mentally ill to understand the charges against them or to assist their attorney in their defense. In fact, courts have had to dismiss criminal cases against at least 30 people on this list within the last three years because they lacked the mental capacity to form even a rudimentary understanding of the proceedings against them. Twenty-five of the people on the city attorney’s list are supposed to be targeted for intensive housing and services under State-funded programs, but jailing them will essentially make providing those services impossible.
The city attorney’s policy decision will further overwhelm the overburdened statewide system of competency evaluations and undercut the millions of dollars of funding and programs that the State has prioritized for Seattle and King County.
Rather than continuing down this nonsensical and expensive road of increased prosecutorial attention, the city attorney should commit to not prosecuting individuals the office has branded as “high utilizers” and instead allow the State and County to serve these individuals with community support and housing.
The failure of the city attorney’s approach isn’t abstract or theoretical — it is already causing human beings to suffer. Tamara (name changed) is on the city attorney’s list. Tamara was charged with misdemeanor offenses in March for allegedly threatening staff at the supportive housing facility where she lives and allegedly kicking the officer who opted to arrest her. The court dismissed Tamara’s case six weeks later because she was found too mentally ill to be prosecuted. While that legal process unfolded, Tamara was jailed. And during part of that time, the jail’s COVID outbreak resulted in her being placed in solitary confinement, which frequently causes severe harm to people with mental health diagnoses.
Tamara, like 72 other people on the city attorney’s list, had their competency to stand trial previously examined by a court. For Tamara, that occurred in 2019. The City spent at least $10,000 incarcerating Tamara and thousands more on public defense, prosecutors, judges, courthouse security, etc. Since Tamara remains on the list, she will likely endure this pointless cruelty again, and the City will waste this money anew. This pattern will repeat not just for Tamara, but for all those on the list who have been failed again and again by the City’s criminal legal system.
We urge the city attorney to create a new list — a list of people who courts have previously found could not face charges. The people on this list should not be subject to jail booking or prosecution for misdemeanor offenses; instead, they should be introduced to service providers who can develop community support and housing options without the hindrance and destabilization caused by repeated jailing and prosecution.
Only through a clear-eyed understanding of how harmful and ineffectual it is to prosecute people — especially those experiencing serious mental illness — can we work together to heal our community.
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Anita Khandelwal is the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, which annually provides public defense services to about 15,000 people in King County.
Mark Stroh is the executive director of Disability Rights Washington, a nonprofit that protects the rights of people with disabilities statewide.
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