City Attorney’s Emphasis on “Heavy Users” Helps No One

In March, the City Attorney’s Office (CAO) launched a new program called the High Utilizer Initiative to focus prosecutions on people they believe commit a disproportionately high number of low-intensity crimes. Now that the program has been in operation for several months, a review of a recent case reveals issues that will likely hinder its success, harm the people it targets, and thus lead to even lower crime.

In May, a person I will call “Jane” stood before a judge as a city attorney asked to keep her in jail on $500 bond. The CAO had identified Jane as a ‘high user’ of the criminal justice system, which meant that cops had arrested and referred her for prosecution twelve or more times in the past five years, including at least once in the past eight. last months. (Note: “dismissals” are not convictions. A dismissal is basically a cop saying you’ve committed a crime.)

Jane was charged with theft, based on allegations that she shoplifted from a local convenience store. With the next available court date scheduled for mid-August, a judge granting the City’s bail request would likely have kept her in remand (i.e. jail) for the summer. . When the judge denied the bail request and released her, Jane cried with relief.

Misdemeanor cases like Jane’s normally go to Community Court, a diversion program that connects people to support services instead of traditional prosecution. But the CAO has been filtering people they classify as “heavy users” out of that court since May.

Jane’s case demonstrates the structural problem of trying to use targeted prosecutions and jail to address non-violent and disruptive behavior.

According to the judge who heard her case, the community court would automatically release Jane from police custody and connect her with support services to meet her economic needs within a week of her initial hearing in hopes of to reduce their dependence on illegal means of generating income. On the other hand, a meta-analysis of 116 university studies suggests that prison may have slightly increased his risk of recidivism.

During her initial hearing, the judge noted that the city attorney’s latest attempt to prosecute Jane had been dismissed after the court found her unfit to stand trial due to mental illness.

According to her public defender, Jane has been granted supportive housing since her last case. With the medical help she receives from the staff on site, she is said to be improving in managing her condition. Her attorney also said she had not been convicted of a felony in the past four years and should be considered a “success” for the city’s diversion programs.

But with her case relegated to regular court, Jane likely faced months in pretrial detention before her next hearing if the judge granted the city’s $500 bail request.

Permanent supportive housing providers try to work with tenants like Jane as they get dragged into the criminal justice system, but an extended stay in jail could see her lose her place in the housing complex that helped her. to regain some stability. Edmund Witter of the Housing Justice Project said in an email that his organization had “absolutely” seen cases where a criminal case led to people being evicted, even before the criminal process reached a final verdict.

Given her circumstances and history of mental illness, it’s unclear why the City Attorney’s office deemed someone like Jane to deserve increased attention and general prosecution, although the office offers an explanation of why. program in general.

According to a recently released report written by Brian T. Moran, the former Trump-appointed U.S. Attorney for Western Washington whom the CAO hired as a consultant, the legal department has decided to focus on this population because it believes that “banning these offenders will result in a more visible impact on community safety and have a disproportionately positive impact on reducing the level of crime. Translation: They think these people commit the most crimes, and therefore punish them for punishing will reduce visible crime the fastest.

Proponents of criminal law reform disagree with this assertion.

The Northwest Community Bail Fund, a nonprofit that advocates for bail reform, says the “central problem” with those targeted by the CAO program is the “lack of necessary economic and social support to deter crime”. Being hit with a court case creates even more bureaucratic hurdles to navigate for people who already struggle to access services such as supportive housing or food assistance.

Jane’s mental illness will almost certainly result in a dismissal of this charge, much like the last time she was sued. She has already secured supportive housing, and the city has a variety of pre-filing diversion programs that could provide her with more intensive case management without the hassle and expense of a court case.

CAO’s High Utilizer initiative doesn’t help. What is that Is providing, however, is the appearance of action on a problem that the criminal justice system cannot hope to solve on its own. Subjecting someone to the scrutiny of the criminal justice system does not give them a better chance of getting mental health treatment, and it only further complicates someone’s attempts to access the few social services that are at his disposal.

What would really stop people like Jane from engaging in disruptive behavior like shoplifting? A behavioral health system with sufficient capacity to provide treatment to all who need it, and an accessible social safety net for people with mental illness or substance use disorder.

Until we stand up and maintain these services, prioritizing people like Jane for mainstream prosecution doesn’t really create “liability” for anyone. All it does is hide a problem we can’t solve behind a smokescreen of harsh rhetoric about crime.

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