Despite the fact that I have helped bring down the Seattle daily jail population from a daily average of 409 in 2001 to just 254 in 2008, I recently faced a claim that the King County jail is overcrowded because I prosecute people who should be set loose. My opponent most recently cited a case where a defendant was given a 31-day jail sentence after stealing a can of tuna, affecting outrage over such a strong sentence for stealing food. However, there is a critical back story.
In the tuna case, the defendant had a mile-long rap sheet. By the time the individual – let’s call him Charlie (as in Charlie Tuna) – was nabbed shoplifting the tuna, local taxpayers had paid tens of thousands of dollars in arrest, court, and jail costs for his fifty, (that's right 50), Seattle Municipal Court convictions, 18 misdemeanor convictions in other jurisdictions, and 6 felony convictions. Further, Charlie had at least 40 other arrests that did not lead to convictions. Unless he was the worst criminal of all time, he also probably committed crimes without being caught. To put it mildly, Charlie was a problem for our community.
So, by the time he was sentenced in 2004 for his 50th misdemeanor conviction, Charlie had racked up at least 114 criminal arrests and convictions. In Seattle, as in most communities, our citizens do not have endless patience for people like Charlie. Store owners are rightfully infuriated when the offender comes back to offend and re-offend, and demand to know why people like Charlie keep “getting off.” At the same time, the cost borne by taxpayers for repeat offenders is enormous. At times, it is more effective to put people in jail. This was one of those times.
Charlie was participating in both the Seattle Mental Health Court and the King County Drug Court at the time he was sentenced. By all accounts jail, treatment and monitoring worked to help Charlie. Between 2004 and 2008, Charlie was not caught committing any crimes. In 2009 he was caught stealing a textbook and Charlie was sent to Community Court – an option not available in his earlier criminal career. I personally handled Charlie’s Community Court case, and am very pleased that Charlie is now receiving the services he needs while being held accountable for his crimes.
We cannot ignore crime. Like a broken window in a vacant building, low-level problems become major problems if we ignore them. I look at the Charlies of our community and have found a way to protect our community, our homes, our businesses and our families by giving defendants second chances and a way to atone, and learn how to be a positive part of our community.