The “prolific offenders” report: a close read

Two weeks ago, a consortium of business district and neighborhood advocacy groups released a report entitled “System Failure: report on prolific offenders in Seattle’s criminal justice system.” The report, authored by Scott Lindsay, a former public safety advisor to Mayor Murray and 2017 candidate for City Attorney, identifies 100 individuals who “cycle through the criminal justice system with little  impact on their behavior, repeatedly returning to Seattle’s streets to commit more crimes.”

Heavy on findings but light on recommendations, the report paints a dire picture of the state of the criminal justice system in Seattle and King County, and the ability of this group of “prolific offenders” to game the system. But as with any study that claims such significant findings, it’s worth taking a closer look.

It’s clear right away that this is not a rigorous study. The report gives only high-level information about how the “sample” of 100 individuals that make up the “prolific offender” cohort were chosen. At my request, Lindsay wrote up a separate, detailed description of how he chose the 100. In a nutshell:

  • His goal was “to recreate a sample of the Familiar Faces population and deep dive into what actually happens to them in the criminal justice system.” Lindsay was one of the city’s representatives on King County’s Familiar Faces initiative from 2015-2017, which studied persons with 4 or more bookings in a rolling 12-month period from 2013-2014.
  • Since he no longer has access to the city’s and county’s internal tools, he relied on daily King County Jail booking reports from mid-November to mid-January, filtering out people booked into the Regional Justice Center in South King County and those booked for DUI, domestic violence, and “some other charges that were not related to the problems I was trying to understand.”
  • He identified about 125 individuals with 4 or more bookings in the past 12-month rolling period. He eliminated those who had more of their recent criminal history outside of Seattle, and a small number of individuals with common, generic names where he couldn’t be sure that all the reports were truly for that individual.
  • He then added in 13 people where he was aware of their ongoing criminal activity and who had “a particularly high impact on public safety.” That landed him at 100 individuals.

What conclusions do we draw from this?  The list of 100 individuals is not a random sample. We have no idea how representative it is of a larger population. It’s best thought of as a set of 100 stories, from which we can learn about those individuals and about things that aren’t working well in the system. But since the sample was heavily curated, it’s beyond the reach of the study to draw larger inferences about Seattle’s offender population, the homeless population, the population with mental health issues, or the population with substance abuse issues. We also don’t know if the same findings hold true in Bellevue, in Issaquah, in Tukwila, in Portland, or in any other city, and it would be nearly impossible to draw a direct comparison. This is very much a one-off study.

That means when you read the study, every time it uses the phrase “prolific offenders,” you should substitute “this specific group of 100 people.” That said, there are certainly insightful things we can learn about (and from) this group. The report’s findings:

  • They “repeatedly victimize Seattle’s busiest neighborhoods while cycling through the criminal justice system.” The report says that they very often committed the same crimes in the same neighborhoods over a long period of time.
  • Many of their crimes involved theft to pay for drugs.
  • About 40% of them have severe mental health conditions. Half of that subset (about 20% of the total group) “had a lengthy history of serious, unprovoked assaults on innocent victims.” Most of them had been found not competent to stand trial, which led to new cases against them being dismissed.
  • Some of them repeatedly resist arrest and threaten police officers when detained.
  • In virtually every case, they violated court-ordered conditions of their pre-trail release or sentence. They accumulated multiple bench warrants because of this.
  • All 100 had “indicators that they struggled with substance use disorders.” 38 of them had been identified for a mental health evaluation in one or more of their recent court cases. All 100 had “indications that they are currently or recently homeless based on police reports and court records.”
  • Many of them “manipulate the system to evade booking into jail.” Apparently a common approach is when arrested to claim that they had swallowed heroin, so that King County Jail would send them to Harborview Medical Center for examination first. But that required the arresting officers to transport them to Harborview, guard them at the hospital for several hours, and then transport them to jail. But faced with the need to get back on the street, many officers choose instead to release them at the hospital.
  • When the defendant is not in custody, it takes on average six months for the City Attorney’s Office to file retail theft charges based on reports directly from major retailers through the city’s “Retail Theft Program.” While this was intended to reduce incarceration for minor thefts, the report concludes that it means that people in this group of 100 can steal from the same stores daily with “little likelihood of short-term consequences.”
  • Individuals in this group who are homeless are often released from King County Jail at midnight, when it is too late to be admitted into a shelter overnight. Based on the data studied for the report, midnight release is used about 30% of the time.

What are some big take-aways from this? First, there are definitely some broken parts of the criminal justice system, and many of these 100 people have figured out how to game the system to their advantage. Second, there are a set of people dealing with substance abuse, mental health disorders, and/or homelessness who are not getting the focused attention they need to deal with those issues.

But let’s also pause for a moment to be clear about things this study does NOT say. It does not say “homeless people are prolific offenders,” nor does it say “people with substance abuse issues are prolific offenders” or “people with mental health issues are prolific offenders.” This is a study of a specific, curated set of 100 people, and it points to strong correlations between those four issues among that group, but it says nothing about causation, nothing about which of those factors led to the other factors (or whether there are some potential other factors, like economic hardship, PTSD, or domestic violence that might be driving some or all of them).  DO NOT fall into the trap of generalizing these findings.

The report, and the accompanying letter from the advocacy groups that commissioned it, doesn’t provide recommendations for next steps, other than to have more conversations among city leaders. At a high level, though, there are some options that come to mind. First, let’s replace the label of “prolific offenders” (which suggests it’s all about crime) and replace it with another term that better captures the dynamic happening here for 100+ people who are cycling not just through the criminal justice system, but also through the homelessness, substance abuse treatment, and mental health treatment systems — for the moment, perhaps just return to calling them “familiar faces.” This is indeed a public safety issue, but it’s much more than just that, and history suggests that treating it as solely a public safety issue won’t solve the problem.

The recent reports on the local homeless population have started to show clear evidence that programs customized for specific demographics (such as LGBTQ youth, veterans, and families) can make real progress on reducing homelessness for those targeted groups. That argues for taking the same approach here: building a customized program that can break the cycle and divert this cohort out of a system that isn’t serving their needs and that they have learned how to game, into one that is resistant to manipulation but can give them what they need to find a better path. The county’s LEAD program, which addresses low-level drug and prostitution offenders, is a good place to start from, but it would need to be far more robust — and I would argue a separate program from LEAD. Designing such a program should be a top priority for SPD, HSD, King County Public Health, and local community-based organizations such as the Public Defenders Association.

There are also some tactical moves the city and county should make, such as ending the practice of releasing people from jail at midnight (especially if they are homeless), or perhaps creating a path to admitting someone immediately into a shelter at whatever time they are released from jail. Also the City Attorney’s office should look to expedite filings of retail theft charges from retailers’ reports,

There is no doubt that this cohort of 100 individuals is causing a disproportionate amount of pain for neighborhoods and businesses in Seattle, and little doubt that the cohort is larger than just these 100. But the danger of a report like this is that it can be twisted into supporting comfortable narratives and generalizations that aren’t supported by facts and rigorous studies. Rather than do that, let’s focus on the useful insights and get busy solving the identifiable, addressable problems.

 

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