A report commissioned by Seattle business leaders and written by a member of the previous Mayoral administration concludes that a small number of homeless repeat offenders are involved in thousands of criminal cases in the city. Titled “System Failure” the report looks at 100 offenders and finds they are involved in over 3,500 criminal cases. Most of those offenses involving stealing from area businesses to pay for drug habits. And because the homeless have learned to work the system, they often spend little or no time in jail, and never appear for court. From the report’s executive summary:
The sample group of prolific offenders analyzed here had consistent patterns of criminal behavior – they very often committed the same crimes in the same neighborhood over a period of months or years. In some cases, a single individual had 40 or more criminal cases related to a single neighborhood, and often a small multi-block area, over the course of several years. In the most extreme cases, a single individual was responsible for near constant harassment of a business or public establishment over an extended period. Police reports for these incidents often note that the suspect is “well known to officers” and sometimes directly ask for the justice system to provide relief for the community. Instead, the individuals sampled in this report cycled through the criminal justice system with little accountability and no apparent impact on their behavior.
…A typical narrative for this population involves shoplifting at major retail establishments across the city followed by trading those stolen goods for cash through a stolen property broker, often at 3rd and Pike Street.
…Of the 100 individuals examined based on significant recent criminal activity, all 100 of them hadindicators that they struggle with substance use disorders. These indicators included police reports, prior recent arrests for drug possession, and court-ordered drug evaluations.
These are homeless junkies whose job is stealing to feed their habit. When they are caught, they have worked out a way to avoid going to jail:
In many of the cases reviewed as a part of this analysis, a suspect detained by police would claim to be suffering from an injury or to have swallowed heroin so that King County Jail would decline to book them until they had been seen at Harborview. If Seattle Police officers want to book the individual into jail, they must transport the suspect to Harborview (or an alternative hospital), guard them at the hospital for up to several hours, and re-transport the suspect back to the jail. Because following these steps often requires two or more officers being off the streets for an extended portion of their shift, the officers will often instead be forced to release the suspect at the hospital. In the words of one police report: “this is a tactic that is frequently deployed by misdemeanor arrestees to prevent their brief incarceration at King County Jail.”
That’s the big picture. But the body of the report also offers some detailed examples of how the system fails to address these repeat offenders:
Alexander L. is addicted to methamphetamines, according to police and court records. In 2018, he was booked into King County Jail on 13 occasions for theft, burglary, criminal trespass, assault, disturbance, possession of drug paraphernalia, and carrying a concealed weapon. In every single case where charges were filed and pursued, Alexander failed to appear for court hearings (except when he was already jailed) and failed to comply with conditions of release from jail. As his 2018 King County Jail bookings reflect, he is repeatedly arrested, incarcerated, and released without any apparent impact on his behavior…
Alexander’s 13 arrests in 2018 only represent a fraction of his total impact on the Lake City neighborhood. Uncounted are the number of times he committed thefts or disturbances that went unreported to police or were reported to police but where no arrest was made.
So maybe this guy is involved in 50 or 75 different incidents in a year. Of those, a fraction are reported and a fraction of those reports result in an arrest. Alexander, at worst, is briefly incarcerated and then winds up back in the same neighborhood, stealing to feed his habit.
This is a case where authorities are clearly missing the forest for the trees. It’s true that any of the 3,500 individual acts recorded in this report—theft, trespassing, etc.—are minor infractions compared to a lot of what police have to deal with, but the sheer number of incidents means this is a tremendous nuisance for the city and wastes a lot of police time arresting the same people over and over. Seattle would probably reduce the negative impact of homelessness dramatically if it would just get serious about the repeat offenders on this list. Instead, it allows them to cycle through the system and continue to create a nuisance that angers a lot of neighbors and business owners and makes the police look helpless in the process.
But of course this is Seattle so there are already complaints the report is unfair to the homeless:
Anita Khandelwal, the director of the King County Department of Public Defense, said in a statement:
“A report issued today by several neighborhood districts in Seattle underscores the complete inefficacy of the criminal legal system in addressing homelessness and behavioral health issues. It underscores the fact that we continue to criminalize mental illness and homelessness, when in fact we need a new approach – one that provides meaningful supports for people in our community who are struggling.”
“The report fails to recognize the humanity of the people it profiles, most of whom are our clients. At the same time, by showcasing the failures of the system, it reinforces what we know: Our clients are harmed by incarceration, and our community needs to provide them with housing and services.”
How can the focus be that they are harmed by incarceration when the report says they’re not incarcerated most of the time? This report doesn’t say that homelessness is criminalized, it says drug addicts stealing to buy drugs are cycling through the system without consequences. What about the harm these people are doing to businesses and neighbors? Perhaps Seattle should focus a bit more on that and bit less on giving these homeless drug-addicts a lifetime pass on petty crime.
Here’s a report from King 5 News: