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Criminal Justice Overhaul Sparks Backlash In Seattle


Here is a side effect of criminal justice reform - many communities around the U.S. are working to hold fewer people in prison. The trouble is prisons have served as warehouses for people who are mentally ill or suffering from substance abuse. Now that some are out, they're linked to a different problem - what's called visible homelessness. We have to be brutally frank about what visible homelessness means. Instead of being shoved invisibly out of the way, troubled people are on the streets and sometimes committing crimes.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports from Seattle.

MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Criminal justice reform is definitely in vogue in Seattle. The city attorney rejects what he calls the old way of doing things, such as asking for maximum sentences. And the county attorney no longer charges people for possession of small amounts of drugs - even heroin. It's made Seattle a national model for those who want to see fewer Americans in jail. But some Seattle residents believe it's also leading to more of this...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I've got a taser. Put the pipe down...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Go ahead, shoot me...

KASTE: Get your hand out of your pocket.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Put the pipe down...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm not putting s*** down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Put the pipe down.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I'm not putting it down.

KASTE: This is police body camera video from April. A man wielding a length of drainpipe has decided that this downtown alley now belongs to him - the cops are here to explain otherwise.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK. So here's the thing, though, you can't chase people out of the alley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Of course I can. This is my alley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: OK. You can say that...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: This is my alley.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...That doesn't make it your alley.

KASTE: Just a few weeks earlier, another apparently mentally ill man tried to throw a woman off a bridge. He'd been arrested three times before that for attacking random strangers with no major criminal consequences. Incidents like this are starting to fuel a backlash.


ERIC JOHNSON: What if Seattle is dying and we don't even know it?

KASTE: And that backlash found its voice in this local TV special released a few months ago. It's basically an hour-long complaint about the trash, petty crime and scary behavior of the visible homeless.


JOHNSON: ...It is about lost souls who wander our streets, untethered to home or family or reality...

KASTE: The TV special struck a nerve, and it's become part of the local political discussion - even a judge weighed in, presiding Municipal Judge Ed McKenna. At a meeting of the Downtown Seattle Association, he faulted prosecutors for pulling their punches when dealing with crimes committed by drug users and the mentally ill.


ED MCKENNA: We see assaults on police officers all the time that are charged as misdemeanors which probably should be charged as felonies. Assaults on bus drivers, health care professionals - all what would otherwise should be felonies, and they are charged as misdemeanors. I can't answer why that decision is being made.

KASTE: He says it's frustrating for him when prosecutors hold back like this because it means the criminal justice system has less leverage over these repeat offenders.


MCKENNA: So, for instance, a prosecutor could say, if your client wants to do inpatient treatment, we'll order him into secure inpatient treatment facility. If he doesn't want to do treatment, we're going to ask for a whole lot more jail. What choice would your client like?

KASTE: The judge's comments earned him an unusual public rebuke from the city attorney and public defenders. In a joint open letter, they warned him that he'd overstepped. But those who work in Seattle courts say that the judge does have a point. The system simply doesn't have as much leverage as it used to over mentally ill people who break the law. Because there's less threat of jail, they have less reason to come here.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: You're experiencing what it's like to have to, you know, adult, as my wife calls it (laughter).


KASTE: This is Seattle's municipal mental health court. It offers a deal to mentally ill defendants - if they agree to two years of probation and treatment, the charges are dropped. That's what's happening right now. This judge is congratulating a new graduate.


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: So it is with great pleasure that I, not only give you the certificate, that I dismiss your case with...

KASTE: But just before the ceremony, other defendants, charged more recently, asked the judge to transfer their cases out of mental health court to the normal courts down the hallway, where they now have less to fear. If the prosecutors there are less likely to send them to jail, why should they stay here for this laborious two-year commitment to a process of treatment and probation? Even the person who just graduated today, Mikko Staton, wonders if she shouldn't have done the same.

STATON: If I had been of sound mind, I wouldn't have accepted that plea. But the fact of the matter is I was homeless.

KASTE: She stuck with mental health court in part because, as part of the deal, they helped her to find housing. But that incentive is no longer being offered to new defendants. The funding was repurposed for Seattle's broader homelessness crisis. So now, not only is there less of a stick to get mentally ill people to go this route, there's less of a carrot too.

PETE HOLMES: Carrots and sticks - incentives and disincentives - toward what?

KASTE: That's the city attorney, Pete Holmes. He's the prosecutor who criticized Judge McKenna. Holmes says, even if he did use the threat of harsher sentences to push people to get help, there just isn't enough help to push them into.

HOLMES: We're finding out that system is really at its maximum. I think the judge and I even agree on that, that those services are really at their limit.

KASTE: When big mental institutions closed down in this country decades ago, he says America never figured out what to do with all the people who still needed treatment. And he says this pressure on prosecutors like him to get tough now is really just an attempt to sweep that unsolved problem back under the rug.

HOLMES: What we're really talking about is to say, just put them in jail. And at least that offender will be out of sight, out of mind for a defined period of time - not receiving treatment, but at least out of the public view.

KASTE: So for the moment, in cities like Seattle, America's unsolved mental health treatment problem remains out in the open for everyone to see. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.

(SOUNDBITE OF FREDDIE JOACHIM'S "YESTERDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Martin Kaste is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers law enforcement and privacy. He has been focused on police and use of force since before the 2014 protests in Ferguson, and that coverage led to the creation of NPR's Criminal Justice Collaborative.
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