City’s “prolific offenders” task force issues report, Mayor proposes response

You will likely recall that last February a group self-published a report on “prolific offenders” who cause problems for local communities and businesses, and who cycle through the criminal justice system. As I wrote at the time, that report had plenty of methodological issues and other flaws that limited its usefulness, since the authors didn’t have access to most of the relevant government, law-enforcement, and human-services records. However, in the aftermath of that report, Mayor Durkan commissioned her own task force to look into the issue of prolific offenders. That group published their report last week, concurrent with a budget proposal from the Mayor for four new programs to address the problem.

In contrast to the group earlier this year, the Mayor’s task force had the “dream team” of cross-agency representation, including:

  • the Mayor’s Office and the King County Executive’s Office;
  • the offices of the Seattle City Attorney and the King County Prosecutor;
  • King County Superior Court and Seattle Municipal Court;
  • SPD;
  • Seattle Human Services Department;
  • King County Department of Human and Community Services;
  • Seatle-King County Office of Public Health;
  • King County Department of Public Defense; and
  • Seattle City Council.

They got together and shared perspectives; but more importantly, they shared data. That let them analyze the top “prolific offenders” (rebranded “high barrier individuals”) far more accurately than the first report could, developing a much clearer picture of the path that individuals take through a variety of different agencies and where some of the breakdowns in the system are.

After some disagreement on the best measure for identifying the people to focus on, the task force eventually settled on the number of times an individual appeared in SPD incident reports as potentially committing an offense. They identified 500 individuals who each had at least 7 offense reports between May 2018 and April 2019. Those individuals were cross-matched in the judicial system and human-services records.

As we would expect, the 500 most frequent offenders have a “power law” distribution, where most of them committed fewer offenses, and a very small number committed a large number of offenses. Together, they represent 4,885 reports, and 1,345 court cases covering 2,019 charges.

Most of the charges were for property crimes, with a smaller set of violent crimes.

This was even more pronounced among the top 100 offenders (the leftmost bar in each chart).

According to the study, the vast majority of incidents were in the downtown core, especially for the 100 most prolific offenders.

Of the 1,345 cases, at the time of the study 31% resulted in all charges being dismissed, 32% in a guilty finding, and the remaining 37% were still pending. 63% of the 500 individuals had at least one of their cases dismissed, and 53% had at least one charge resulting in a guilty finding.  The most common reason for a dismissal was a negotiated plea — 51% of the dismissals, in fact. 23% of dismissals were because the defendant was declared incompetent to stand trial.

Of the 500 individuals, the study team matched 465 (93%) to records in the King County Behavioral Health and Recovery Division’s information system (BHRD). Generally speaking, the racial, gender and age demographics for those 465 matched the general jail population — which means they shared that population’s racial disparities from the general population of Seattle. The one exception is that women were overrepresented in the prolific offender group.

Two-thirds (318) of the 465 individuals had a clinical diagnosis in BHRD in the last three years. Of those 318 people:

  • 75% had a behavioral or mental disorder due to psychoactive substance use;
  • 43% were diagnosed with schizophrenia, schizotypal, delusional, or other non-mood psychotic disorders;
  • 36% were diagnosed with a mood disorder;
  • 33% were diagnosed with a nonpsychotic mental disorder (the most common one was PTSD);
  • about half were diagnosed iwth both a mental health condition and a substance use disorder.

64% of the 465 were currently enrolled in behavioral health services with a King County contracted provider — but “enrolled” does not mean they are actively receiving treatment, so it’s hard to draw conclusions about the effectiveness of the services. 73 of the 465 (16%) were enrolled in one of the four major “Familiar Faces” programs in King County:

  • LEAD, a pre-booking diversion rpogram for “adults whose law violations stem from unmet behavioral health problems.”
  • Vital, a program providing case management and “wrap-around” services for people booked into jail 4 or more times who were experiencing behavioral helath challenges.
  • LINC, a “transitional diversion program” that routes people who may be found incompetent to behavioral health treatment in the community.
  • PACT, a program implemented across the US and internationally, serving people with psychotic disorders whose illness affects everyday activities and who demonstrate continuous high service needs that cna’t be addressed by standard behavioral health care.

Three of the four programs (LEAD, Vital, and PACT) have shown some success (keeping in mind that their clients are some of the most challenging people to treat, so the success rate will never be close to 100%); LINC has not yet been formally evaluated. But all four programs are capacity constrained: Vital can handle up to 60 individuals, LINC up to 90, and PACT 270. LEAD has a funded capacity for 525 though it is currently serving 700 clients. Keep in mind, as I said above, that only 73 of the 500 “prolific offenders” are enrolled in one of these programs; they are largely serving another client base, to try to prevent them from ever becoming prolific offenders.

Seattle Municipal Court, where the majority of the cases are handled, also offers five relevant programs and services for people coming through its system:

  • the Community Resource Center, providing assistance with clothing, food, housing, health & hygiene, substance use disorder assessments, and more.
  • the Day Reporting Program, a check-in program for defendants with a high rate of failure to appear or a more extensive criminal history.
  • general probation: individuals are assigned a counselor who completes an assessment or risks and needs and builds connections for the person with services and case managers through the Community Resource Center.
  • Mental Health Court, for individuals willing to engage in treatment and comply with frequent monitoring.
  • A consolidated calendar with one judge to preside over cases of individuals engaged with LEAD, Vital or REACH. This is a very new program, still getting rolled out.

However, the Seattle Municipal Court programs are largely failures when serving prolific offenders; they either have very low access rates, or very low success rates. Of the prolific offenders, only 25% had  visited the Community Resource Center. The failure rate of the Day Reporting Program for prolific offenders is 95%. For general probation, whereas in the general population it has a 77% success rate, with prolific offenders it’s 17%. And only a tiny fraction of prolific offenders were found to be eligible for Mental Health Court and chose to opt-in.

According to the study report, the task force had difficulty reaching consensus on the appropriate response, beyond a belief that a public-health approach focusing on prevention and addressing the underlying issues is “vital to achieving long-term success for the public and for the specific population.” Some favored a harm-reduction approach, recognizing that incarceration won’t solve any of their underlying issues. There was also disagreement about mandatory vs. voluntary treatment. The task force members generated a collection of potential responses, roughly categorized as:

  • Prevention: services offered before behaviors escalate;
  • Voluntary: services that clients may choose to opt into;
  • Compelling: services that clients will want to opt into;
  • Compelled: services and programs that clients are required to participate in.

Ultimately, they focused on four pilot programs as their recommendation for first steps (recognizing that it was not a complete or ultimate solution), which Mayor Durkan is now proposing to take forward as part of her 2020 budget proposal.

  1. Case conferencing: an ongoing collaboration between the Seattle City Attorney, the King County Prosecuting Attorney, the probation department, the Department of Corrections, and service providers to share information and collectively track and coordinate plans for prolific offenders so they can’t just cycle endlessly in and out of the criminal justice system. The challenge will be to solve the privacy and other issues that currently create a barrier to sharing information across organizational boundaries.
  2. “High Barrier” probation: a plan to address the abysmally low completion rate for probation with prolific offenders, by creating a “caseload” program with probation officers that have lower caseloads and are expected to higher engagement with their clients; and a “treatment” program where a jail sentence is shortened if the client agrees to engage in an inpatient chemical dependency treatment program. There are problems with this approach, however: it assumes that there is available capacity in treatment programs (largely not true today), and that high-intensity supervision is effective, when studies show just the opposite.
  3. “Rapid Re-entry” connector: closing a hole in the current system of releasing people from jail wherein those who are incarcerated for less than 72 hours don’t have access to resources and staff to help plan what happens after they are released. A staff person would triage individuals for potential services from LEAD, Vital, LINC and other programs. However, increasing the number of people using re-entry services will only be useful if the receiving programs are also funded to increase their current limited capacity.
  4.  A special enhanced shelter: the recently-opened enhanced shelter in the unused west wing of the King County Jail would be expanded to add capacity, and enhanced with on-site, on-demand behavioral health and substance-abuse treatment services as well as case management. According to the Mayor’s Office, this shelter will be reserved for prolific offenders with needs related to homelessness and behavioral health. However, it will likely have many of the same issues as other enhanced shelters such as the Navigation Center: people will exit slowly (especially if they are going through treatment in the shelter), so it will reach its 60-bed capacity quickly and then cease to be an available option for prolific offenders as they are released from jail. In essence, it will become less like a “shelter” and more like another inpatient behavioral health treatment center specializing in people with long criminal records. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s not what is being advertised. And it will require very specialized staff to deal with the specialized clients.

According to the Mayor’s press release, her 2020 budget proposal will include nearly $3 million to fund these four pilots, with the King County Executive proposing an additional $2.4 million and the Seattle Municipal Court kicking in $120,000. If the Council approves the funding, the programs could roll out in early 2020.

If you’re looking for a comprehensive solution to the problem of prolific offenders, this will disappoint you. The study report advances our understanding of the cohort of prolific offenders, though it also exposes the continuing lack of consensus on an effective and humane response. We can hope, however, that with investments in a number of programs the city will learn which ones are successful and can further scale those up in the future.

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One comment

  1. Thank you for a great summary. I know a little about LEAD and nothing about Vital or LINC. I met a person working in one of the PACT programs who felt that, in this particular PACT, there were no real incentives for the participants to change their behavior while the environment in which it was set actively deterred positive change. Successful metrics are based on whether they follow PACT protocols, not on the participant outcomes. I hope the others have a more effective structure.

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