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Sheriff’s Log: Revolving Doors and Broken Windows

Submitted by Paul Pastor, Pierce County Sheriff.

In a recent shooting on a crowded street corner in Seattle one person was killed and six wounded. People stated that they were not surprised that something terrible happened at that location because it was notorious for drug-dealing and drug use, assaults, and general public disorder. 

They described a phenomenon which was noted in the 1982 article entitled “Broken Windows: The Police and Neighborhood Safety” by criminologists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. The article noted that small transgressions of public order, unchallenged, serve to encourage larger violations and transgressions. 

This is driven by the fact that people in general test boundaries of acceptable behavior. Such testing especially true of the criminally-inclined, as well as those whose social inhibitions loosened by drug use or mental illness. 

This loosening of boundaries appears to be one of the factors in the perception that Seattle (and other large cities) are experiencing an increase in these symbolic “broken windows.” Small public order violations of and drug use and shoplifting and trespass, litter-filled homeless encampments eventually lead to more serious lawlessness. 

A recent television expose pointed to this situation and concluded that “Seattle is Dying.” I don’t know that I agree. I do know that many are concluding that parts of Seattle are in critical condition. 

Why is this? Some people have felt that the jail has become “a revolving door” with violators not being held and prosecution seldom occurring for minor crimes. While police, for the most part, seem willing to make arrests and bring cases to the attention of the system, the follow-up is absent. The approach seems aimed at minimizing jail exposure. Seattle and King County officials have made statements about disproportionate rates of incarceration for minority citizens and the poor and about the importance of seeking to work with those who are homeless, mentally ill and suffer addictions. 

There are serious issues here but I believe that there is a very careful balance to be set in using versus over-using jail resources: we shouldn’t limit ourselves to the extremes of “lock ’em all up or let ’em all go.” 

The problem is that too often, when we pursue criminal justice reform, we seem to automatically support the idea that reform must involve a 180 degree course reversal. In the name of reform, we seem to go from one extreme to another assuming that this is necessary to address critics, reduce costs and increase fairness. 

Such simplistic, idealistic assumptions have brought very unfortunate consequences. The problem is that this “reform” has brought rapidly revolving doors of arrest and release enabling opportunities for further window breaking and “minor crimes.” 

The problem is that revolving doors teach people who commit crimes that their behavior is of little consequence. Examples, of course, include the two young men who have been identified as suspects in the Seattle shooting. Sadly, their further criminal involvement was not a surprise. There are other examples in Tacoma and New York and San Francisco and Los Angeles. 

As we systematically reduce sentences in the name of justice and fairness and saving money, our “reverse course solution” results in today’s reforms creating tomorrow’s larger problems. 

Solutions? Yes, I have some. Link the criminal justice system to mandatory treatment for mental illness and drug addiction. Provide more publicly-funded treatment options for both. When necessary lower the barriers to involuntary treatment. 

I know that this raises serious questions of the morality of involuntary treatment. But how moral is it for us to watch mentally ill and addicted people commit slow motion suicide living on the street? At what point does the community become complicit in the downward spiral? 

And for the other people who to seem to repeatedly revert to a career of ripping people off and assaulting people? Well, let’s invest – it will cost money – in developing ways of discouraging and redirecting their conduct including jail and prison time when needed. Or do we just want to watch the boundaries become further stretched, the broken windows increase, the crimes continue, and communities degrade one crime at a time? 

We don’t need to simply do the opposite of what we are doing now. We need a more nuanced solution than “lock ’em all up or let ’em all go.” We need to think about what can work. Sadly, today, the revolving doors seem to be working far too well. 

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