Every day in King County, a painful, pointless and expensive cycle repeats itself. We arrest people, incarcerate them, prosecute them, defend them, then start all over again. Many are poor. They’re disproportionately people of color. Many struggle with mental illness. Many have deep and profound behavioral health issues stemming from generational poverty.
I know this because I work for the King County Department of Public Defense (DPD), an agency that employs some 200 public defenders to represent the thousands and thousands of poor people who get arrested and charged each year and who have a constitutional right to a lawyer when their liberty interests are at stake.
When I started working at DPD, I was struck by the size and expense of the system: About 75 percent of the county’s general fund goes into the criminal legal system (we don’t call it the criminal justice system because we don’t believe it achieves justice). I was also struck by how profoundly unfair it is.
Our two county jails are filled with people who are incarcerated pre-trial — who have not yet been convicted of a crime — because they can’t afford to post bail. Over and over, we see people held on minor charges — stealing $40 worth of alcohol, hitting someone while in a psychotic state, criminal trespass – for $10,000, $20,000, $30,000 bail. Jail is harsh; it’s profoundly disruptive; and it’s carcinogenic (meaning jail time leads to more jail time).
The situation is particularly painful when it comes to people with mental illness. Routinely, someone in Harborview in a psychotic state will hit a doctor and be hauled off to the jail on a felony assault charge. (It’s a felony to strike certain people — like doctors and law enforcement — even if there’s no bodily harm.) Once in jail, they can sit for weeks, even months, waiting to have their “competency restored,” meaning a transfer to Western State Hospital to get well enough to face prosecution. Disability Rights Washington issued a report on this cycle just last month called, appropriately, “From Hospitals to Handcuffs.” (Find it at disabilityrightswa.org.)
And the system, as many are coming to realize, is racist. Communities of color are over-policed, meaning that a minor offense can lead to an arrest where it might not on Vashon. Once arrested, booked and jailed, judges see you differently; old police reports are unearthed; the prosecutor seeks harsher sentences. If convicted, you build up “points,” leading to even longer sentences should you get convicted again. And of course, once convicted, you have a scarlet letter that can mar you forever, getting in the way of housing, jobs, education and more, adding to the cycle of poverty and despair.
So what does “defund the police” mean? To many of the people I work with, it means shrinking this whole system, what some call the carceral state.
It means providing housing, health care, food and other services for people who are experiencing deep poverty — not armed officers sweeping them off the street. It means that a person who is sick and strikes someone in their state of sickness is not arrested, jailed and placed in solitary confinement, but gets meaningful mental health services in their community. It means families who are struggling don’t get their children taken away for neglect but receive the services they need to address the poverty that leads to neglect. It means an end to the over-policing of poor communities.
Programs exist that enable us to begin this work, but they’re terribly underfunded. Some excellent housing programs have been created, but not nearly enough. Many of the people I work with are pushing hard to see an end to misdemeanor prosecutions, to the creation of meaningful diversion programs, to far-reaching reforms, but with little more than lip service from the establishment.
The fact is, we know how to do this. But the beast that is the criminal legal system continues to get fed, while these other programs struggle for scraps.
Working where I do, I have a window into the daily harms of the carceral state — its racism, its trauma, its profound failures. But I also know there are efforts to build something different. And when I hear the words “defund the police,” that is what I picture — a community that invests in people, in housing, in meaningful services, a community working together to heal the wounds of deep poverty and generational racism.
Leslie Brown, former editor of The Beachcomber, works for the King County Department of Public Defense. This column expresses her own views.