The criminal justice system is like a complex machine with interlocking cogs and wheels that must work perfectly together to achieve the desired outcome. It encompasses politics, politics and public perception.
Getting justice looks very different for someone who feels down in these corridors, fears for their safety, pays for property destroyed, or believes their race makes them a target of law enforcement.
In the ongoing aftermath of the 2020 pandemic and reckoning following the murder of George Floyd, Seattle’s public safety appears disjointed and uncoordinated.
On November 12, this editorial page called on then-Mayor-elect Bruce Harrell to call a public safety summit to set a new course and resolve the many contradictions and disagreements among law enforcement, prosecutors, defense attorneys, attorneys and local residents. Just days before taking office on Jan. 1, Harrell disagreed, suggesting that residents agreed they wanted a responsive, compassionate police department. But recent weeks have shown that crime and violence in the city remain at worrying levels.
Today we reiterate the call for a robust, transparent discussion to thoroughly examine issues that threaten ongoing policing, affect community well-being, and sow public cynicism.
A place to start the conversation could be incarceration.
Earlier this month, the King County Attorney’s Office took the unusual step of highlighting what happened to more than half of 16 people charged with drug and weapons offenses as part of “Operation New Day” police interventions in Little Saigon and downtown Seattle were arrested. Despite the prosecution’s objection, they were released by judges on their first court appearance. Another three people were released after posting bails of about 10% of what prosecutors had asked for.
Imprisonment should be the last resort. Studies have shown that locking people up for even a few days can affect housing and employment and undermine mental health. But the public prosecutor’s office rightly drew attention to these court decisions. The community deserves an open forum where judges, who are elected and accountable to voters, can explain their decision-making process, legal constraints and moral stances.
Early in the pandemic, certain misdemeanor offenses were not accounted for at the downtown King County Correctional Facility to reduce inmate numbers and prevent the spread of disease. The average daily prison population fell from 1,900 to 1,300.
To coordinate the change, city governments formed a working group to reconsider the use of prison facilities. In documents provided to the editorial board as part of a public-records request, SPD officials reported that the booking restrictions “impaired the SPD’s ability to protect the community from low-ranking but chronic offenders.” Officials need a way to restore public order, keep communities safe, and hold people accountable for their actions that impact the safety of a vibrant, livable, and world-class city. The current restrictions on prison bookings have had a significant impact on SPD’s ability to do this, and we believe they have made the communities we serve more vulnerable to the criminal and disorderly activities of highly active chronic offenders.”
In King County’s 2021-2022 biennial budget, King County executive Dow Constantine proposed, and the county council agreed, that the number of people in prison should remain low even after the pandemic has ended. King County Correctional Facility units should be permanently closed.
Whether that policy will continue in the county’s next biennial budget, which is due to be voted on in November, remains to be seen.
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a greater disparity between my close friends and Twitter feeds and insider activists versus, in my case, Democratic voters when it comes to public safety,” King County Councilman Dave Upthegrove said. to the editor, referring to his last re-election campaign. “What I’ve heard consistently from Democratic voters has been frustration over low-level property crimes. I think people are angry and I think my party, the Democratic Party, needs to acknowledge that.”
Even if criminals are increasingly being imprisoned, what happens when they are released?
The One Table regional community conversation on homelessness, convened by elected leaders across the county in 2018, found that the criminal justice system is a leading cause of homelessness. Federal housing regulations exclude people with a certain criminal history from public housing, and it’s often difficult to rent with a criminal record, even with coupons.
In 2019, to reduce recidivism and improve conditions for people released from prison, then-Mayor Jenny Durkan announced four pilot projects, emerging from the city’s High Barrier Individuals Working Group, focused on chronic offenders.
Projects included building a new treatment center in a former downtown wing of the prison for people exiting the facility who need support, and connecting former inmates with post-release services and case management. None of the programs were implemented. The treatment center is on hold; The City Council diverted funds to the three other projects.
Prison policy aside, the city government seems to be running into trouble over police staffing.
The Seattle Police Department lost more than 325 officers from 2020 to November 2021, reducing available patrol personnel to the lowest level since the 1980s, when the city’s population was half what it is today.
Last October, in one of her last acts as mayor, Durkan signed an emergency executive order calling for bonuses and incentives for police officers. The city council canceled the order in late December, but unbeknownst to the council or the new mayor, the department continued to offer incentives. Five new officers joined the force in January before the bug was discovered and bonuses ended.
Police attitudes shouldn’t be so controversial or convoluted. City of Tacoma introduces hiring incentives. Bellevue has incentives. So does the King County Sheriff’s Office. In 2019, the Seattle City Council voted 7-1 to authorize hiring bonuses when the department only had about 40 police officers.
Councilor Sara Nelson is the youngest Seattle policymaker to address the issue. She proposed a resolution on Wednesday to implement incentives for hiring police officers. It is unclear whether she will find the four other necessary voices.
“When you start looking at pay and incentives and just the ability to make people feel valued in the job, that’s one of the struggles that we’ve seen in the last few years,” interim chief Adrian Diaz said at one Council meeting on Mondays.
The questions are fundamental: What kind of police department do we want? How many civil servants should we hire and how should we hire and train them? What role do we want for the prison? How can we ensure that people leave detention better than when they arrived? Which diversion programs make sense?
The police is arguably the most important government service. To implement it fairly and effectively, those involved in the criminal justice system must openly discuss their differences and find better ways to coordinate – with community input.
It’s time for a public safety summit.